Catholic organizations provide food security amid food stamp delays in Alaska

Editor’s note: This article was published in the May 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Catholic organizations and churches are busier than ever this past year due to months-long delays in the arrival of the state’s food stamp program benefits to thousands of Alaskans.

Yet, it was a challenge that saw a prolific outpouring of help from Catholic donations. From the beginning of Lent to Easter, Catholic Social Services collected 10,000 pounds of food from parishes and churches. The food went to the St. Francis House Food Pantry in Anchorage, one of the largest food distribution centers in the state.

Juneau, which also saw many families impacted, has struggled to meet its food collection goal during Lent.

The State of Alaska attributed the processing delays to staffing shortages, a 2021 cyberattack that disrupted online services, an outdated system, and a flood of recertification applications.

The problems arose after the State of Alaska budget cuts resulted in layoffs at the Division of Public Assistance in 2021, resulting in a slower turnover of recertification applications for many Alaskans who rely on the benefits, which is required every six months for most food stamp program applicants. This requirement was put on hold during the COVID- 19 pandemic, until the requirement was reinstated in July 2022.

A statement from the Division of Public Assistance said the obstruction in distributing benefits was caused by a variety of factors.

“The State Public Health Emergency ending was not the cause of the backlog,” according to the statement. “The factors leading up to the backlog include clarification from the Food and Nutrition Services that (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) SNAP cases could no longer be auto-rolled forward. Due to the cyberattack on the IT systems that were not successfully implemented, the decrease in Division staff could not manage the number of recertifications that occurred in one month.”

The Division’s statement refers to the May 2021 cyberattack on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website. The IT systems unsuccessful implementation simply means that the protective measures for the DHSS website server were not operating properly at the time of the cyberattack, allowing the hackers to gain access — it’s unclear why they weren’t functioning though. The Anchorage Daily News reported that the website’s resources were still unavailable 11 months after the fact, according to an article published on April 18, 2022.

Food stamp eligibility requirements were returned to their pre-pandemic levels when Alaska’s pandemic-era Emergency Allotment Program expired in September 2022, which meant dollar-amount cutbacks for many families. The problems persisted throughout the winter, resulting in thousands of families being impacted across the state.

As of mid-April this year, some Alaskans were still experiencing the effects of the food stamps backlog, and the Division‘s website has not reopened its online application service for public assistance application — other than for MAGI (income-based) Medicaid.

A mother of four who utilizes St. Francis House said she was trying to renew her SNAP eligibility, which must be done each year, and sent the paperwork in September 2022. As of early April, she claims to have only recently begun to receive SNAP benefits again.

“When I called, I’m told (by an automated message) there are 130 people ahead of me on the phone – but if you leave a phone number they do call you back,” she said. “That tells me there’s still a lot of people in a bind. If it weren’t for the food pantries, I don’t know what we would do because the price of groceries has really gone up. A good rule is that one bag (of grocery purchases) equals $25. But I’m paying $30 or more on average per bag of groceries.”

Visits to St. Francis House Food Pantry doubled from November 2021 to February 2023, directly coinciding with the disruption in SNAP benefits, according to information provided by Catholic Social Services.

During the past three months, St. Francis House Food Pantry has averaged about 70,000 pounds of food distributed per month, which comes out to about two tons for each day of operation, said Molly Cornish, chief of communications for Catholic Social Services. Saint Francis House operates Monday through Thursday, off 20th Avenue at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage.

“Saint Francis House averages about 13,000 pounds per month of donated food from the community and stores. The remainder comes from the food bank and food purchases from local distributors,” Cornish said.

The number of people served by this food pantry alone is more than 3,800 families. Several parishes also host food pantries and distribute them individually to families. St. Francis House distributed 819,978 pounds of food to those families, an average of 116 families per day. All of this is accomplished utilizing only four paid staffers as well as a cadre of 35 “incredible” volunteers, Cornish said.

Saint Francis House has had to limit visits from clients to twice a month due to the decrease in the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program – and due to the increase in need and food costs. Before this, the program allowed people to pick up food once a week.

Elsewhere in the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, the impact is similar. Dave Ringle, the executive director of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul in Juneau, said it feels like more new people come for help every day.

“We saw an uptick in the number of people coming to the emergency food pantry, with more every day,” Ringle said. “We’ve had good donations and set our Lent food drive goal at 6,000 pounds of food. We haven’t quite matched that. We’re barely able to keep up.”

In addition to the challenges of serving more clients, another emergency food pantry – Helping Hands of Juneau – closed its doors in November, Ringle added.

“So, there’s a greater need,” he said. “We see all kinds of challenges. We’re suppliers of low-income housing and our tenants are struggling – paying electric bills or childcare, which doesn’t leave much for food.”

Food pantries can only help in emergencies, he added.

“The number is far exceeding resources. These are temporary solutions. Getting the (SNAP) program up and running is the sustainable solution,” Ringle said.

According to Feeding America, for every meal that a food pantry supplies, SNAP provides nine meals. Although SNAP does not provide literal food, the program provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency. The charitable food sector simply cannot make up for the scale of food insecurity that results from delays and disruption in SNAP administration, Ringle said.

Solutions are coming.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy requested $6.8 million to be added to the state’s supplemental budget to address the staffing and training needs at the Division of Public Assistance. The Legislature took expedited action to pass the bill in March, which took effect immediately once signed by the governor.

“This funding will help the Division of Public Assistance hire additional eligibility technicians and contractors to prepare for Medicaid Redetermination and address the public assistance backlog, including SNAP benefits,” said Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedburg.

Hedburg also said “the division hopes to have an online application for SNAP benefits” available “by December 2023,” according to an Alaska‘s News Source article published on March 2.

In February, in response to Alaska’s immediate need, the State Department of Health also provided $1.68 million to Alaska’s four regional food banks — the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, Food Bank of Alaska, Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, and Southeast Alaska Food Bank — to purchase and distribute food to their respective communities.

CSS will be receiving a portion of the large food order recently placed by the Food Bank of Alaska, Cornish said on April 5.

Also in February, the governor further proposed an Operating Budget amendment of $9 million for the Division “to increase capacity for eligibility determinations to help address the backlog,” and another $54 million for the Capital Budget “to fully finish migrating the Division’s eligibility system from the outdated legacy system and into AIRES, a database, for full implementation into one, more modern system,” Hedburg said.

As of early April, the Alaska Legislature is expected to take up the budget for debate and passage in the coming weeks.


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