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State launches new online application for food assistance as work to address backlog continues

The IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau on Dec. 20, 2022.
Paige Sparks
The IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau on Dec. 20, 2022.

Alaskans can now apply for food stamp benefits online, after the Alaska Division of Public Assistance announced the launch of an online form on Jan. 5.

It’s part of the state’s effort to revamp the food assistance system to speed up application processing, as some Alaskans have waited months for their benefits.

A backlog of thousands of applications has plagued the division for more than a year. Chronic understaffing, a cyberattack, outdated software, office closures, and a spike in demand resulted in the state falling months behind.

Officials hope that the online application will get Alaskans the food assistance they need in a more timely fashion.

Ketchikan resident Vanessa Budge is among those caught in the state’s food stamp backlog. As of Jan. 5, she hadn’t received benefits in over three months.

“I’ve called, and I’ve called, and they keep saying, ‘Oh, we’re working on it. Oh, we’re just getting through some of the applications,’” Budge said by phone.

On top of her job as a caretaker with an in-home assistance provider, she’s a mother of two young children and takes care of her own aging parents. Budge has relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, for years. She said that everything seemed to be working smoothly until the pandemic.

In 2021, more than 80,000 Alaskans used the program. Food stamp recipients have to reapply periodically. Currently, that’s once a year. Budge said that she reapplied for benefits in August 2023. She was able to get emergency benefits for a month back in September to ensure her kids didn’t go hungry, but since then she’s been left to wait.

“I’m down to nothing but canned goods and soups and stuff that, you know, lasts for a good while. But with the kids growing and stuff, I don’t think it’s gonna last more than a week,” Budge said.

And Budge is just one of thousands of people with similar stories playing out across Alaska.

Ron Meehan, with the Food Bank of Alaska, said that he’s seeing the effect of that backlog firsthand.

“We know that when SNAP doesn’t work, people that are in need are showing up at our network of food banks and food pantries across the state. And we’ve continued to see just exceptionally high levels of need across our network,” Meehan said.

With office closures and software upgrades, state officials with the Alaska Division of Public Assistance said that their backlog swelled to 12,000 in December.

Division director Deb Etheridge said that after a variety of changes, including the suspension of a requirement that applicants be interviewed, the waiting list is now down significantly. The backlog now stands at 8,311, with 86 of those dating back to July 2023, said Alaska Department of Health spokesperson Shirley Sakaye.

“We’ve made significant progress in that backlog in our SNAP applications, but we’re also working really hard to stay current with those cases that are coming in,” Etheridge said.

A new online form launched in late December might ease the strain, Etheridge said. It allows food stamp recipients to apply for benefits without the hassle of a 28-page paper application.

The system is connected with MyAlaska, the sign-on service Alaska residents use to access things like hunting and fishing licenses and Permanent Fund Dividend applications.

The online food assistance application form saves time, Etheridge said. For one, it’s simply easier: the first 260 online applicants to fill it out were able to complete the form in about 20 minutes, compared with roughly an hour for the paper application, Etheridge said.

It should also help reduce the time it takes to process an application, Etheridge said. An application with all of the required information typically takes an hour or less to process, but with a 28-page form, it’s easy for applicants to make mistakes that can stall an application for days at a time, she said.

The online form flags those potential errors in advance, Etheridge said.

“For example, if they say that they have a job, and they do not upload any income verification, and they go to the next screen, they can continue to move through the application, but they’ll get an alert that says ‘Did you mean to do that?’” Etheridge said.

Meehan, from the Food Bank of Alaska, said that it’s a welcome step.

“I think it’s incredibly exciting,” Meehan said. “It provides another platform for individuals seeking food assistance to be able to access that application. Prior to that, we were one of only two states that did not have an online application.”

Meehan said that his group has its eyes on another big change that they’re hoping for, something called “broad-based categorical eligibility.” That would essentially eliminate a requirement that, in most cases, says food stamp recipients can have no more than $2,750 in assets.

“We know that assets, in particular, are incredibly difficult and time-consuming to verify. And by allowing people to save, it can help families get out of poverty and ultimately get off the program,” Meehan said.

Etheridge said that the state is working on ways to implement that change, though she said that antiquated computer systems make it a complicated proposition. Etheridge said that she’s working with the federal agency overseeing SNAP to determine whether the broad-based eligibility standard can be implemented while the state works to modernize its information system.

A pair of bills in the state House and Senate introduced near the end of last year’s legislative session would mandate that change and increase income limits to twice the federal poverty level. That’s $75,000 for a family of four.

But as officials’ efforts to address the backlog continue, Budge, the caretaker in Ketchikan, is still waiting.

“I just want to know when I’ll be able to get my food stamps so I go food shopping, because my kids need food,” Budge said.

The state hopes to clear the backlog by mid-March 2024, according to Sakaye. Etheridge’s division is in the process of hiring nearly two dozen entry-level eligibility technicians to process applications, and senior department leaders have been tasked with processing emergency applications, she said.

Meanwhile, Etheridge encouraged people who need emergency assistance to stop by a local Division of Public Assistance office or call 1-800-478-7778. Anyone in need can also find a local food pantry at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website by clicking the button labeled “Find Food.”