It’s been nearly six months since the Alaska Division of Public Assistance first began to fall behind on processing federal food stamp applications, leaving thousands of Alaskans still waiting for benefits to arrive now.
In rural Alaska, where food costs can be astronomical and food banks or pantries are rare, residents are experiencing particularly dire consequences from the unprecedented backlog, advocates say.
While Alaskans all over the state have been struggling as a result of the delays, officials with the Food Bank of Alaska said they have been contacted by people in multiple villages in rural Alaska — particularly in Western and Northwest Alaska — asking for assistance with an urgency that reflected the lack of a safety net in many of these communities.
Stories are emerging of people digging to the bottom of their freezers for scarce game, relying on friends and neighbors to fill empty shelves, and even in some rare cases requiring hospitalization for malnutrition.
“People are literally starving,” Ron Meehan, Food Bank of Alaska’s policy and advocacy manager, said this week.
“They’re calling and saying ‘We have nothing,’” Meehan said, referring to the handful of communities where people have reached out for help. “But the reality is that there are probably far more than that experiencing this, they just don’t know how to reach us.”
Food Bank staff said they are able to deliver food to struggling food pantries in some communities, but are limited by dwindling resources, rising food costs and fewer donations even as more people need help due to Alaska’s delays processing applications in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“So many of our food banks and food pantries simply do not have the capacity to meet this need,” Meehan said.