Groups Sue Over Alaska’s Failure to Provide SNAP Benefits to Vulnerable Communities
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, January 20, 2023
UPDATE JANUARY 25, 2023
Following the filing of our lawsuit last week, we at NCLEJ are hearing from many people in Alaska facing terrible difficulty and critical food shortages without their SNAP benefits. Our case, Kamkoff v. Hedberg, was filed as a class action lawsuit. This means that we have already asked the Court to allow us to work on behalf of all the people whose SNAP applications and recertifications have been delayed. If the Court approves the request to make this case a class action, we will be able to ask the Court to solve the same kind of problem for many people at once. We are looking forward to the Court’s decision on our request.
Please know that if the Court approves the class certification of our lawsuit, you can be a member of the class even if you don’t do anything extra to join the lawsuit right now. You also have a right to immediately ask for a fair hearing even if you have not received a notice or eligibility decision on your SNAP case.
ALASKA – The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) and the Northern Justice Project filed a lawsuit today against the Alaska Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg over the Department’s failure to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, to vulnerable communities. Read the full complaint here.
With food insecurity spiking due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, Alaska’s broken SNAP program harms tens of thousands of Alaskans who are trying to apply for benefits for the first time or trying to recertify their eligibility. Indigenous communities and other racial minorities in Alaska are particularly at risk of food insecurity because of language and geographic barriers. According to DOH data, more than 27,000 Alaskans applied for SNAP from November 2021 to October 2022.
“Not having SNAP benefits has been a big struggle for me and my family to make ends meet and try to make sure we have food on the table,” said Zoya Jenkins of Bethel, Alaska, a SNAP recipient who stopped receiving food stamps despite submitting her recertification application. Zoya is a member of the Yup’ik community.
The lawsuit alleges:
- DOH consistently fails to process new applications, expedited applications, and recertifications within the timeframe required by federal law.
- For the current fiscal year, only 57% of initial SNAP applications, 42.8% of expedited applications, and 34.6% of recertification applications have been processed timely.
- Significant barriers prevent people from even filing applications:
- The DOH has only eleven district offices, with limited hours of service, for the entire state. These offices are essentially unreachable for low-income residents of rural areas.
- Most applicants rely on the Virtual Contact Center – which frequently drops calls and has extensive wait times of 5 hours or more.
- Many applicants never get through the Virtual Contact Center to a live person.
- DOH fails to provide interpretation and translation for Alaskans who need services in languages other than English – more than 13,000 people.
- None of the phone numbers on the DOH website offering translations to specific languages are functional. The Department provides no interpretation services or written translations in any Alaskan Native Language.
Saima Akhtar, Staff Attorney, National Center for Law and Economic Justice: “It is unacceptable that low-income families are denied access to critical food benefits because their state agency fails at the most basic levels of operation. Without food assistance, people are faced with buying food or paying for heat at this time of year. Delayed and denied SNAP benefits have very real and very immediate consequences for Alaska’s most vulnerable families, which is why we’re taking the Department of Health to Court to force them to meet their obligations.”
Nick Feronti, Attorney, Northern Justice Project: “Access to food is a human right, and we are determined to make this access real for all Alaskans. The State needs to clear the backlog of SNAP recertifications, provide adequate written translations and interpretation services, and step up capacity to meet the needs of the Alaskan population. We will continue to hold their feet to the fire to make that happen.”
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice advances racial and economic justice through ground-breaking impact litigation, policy advocacy, and support for grassroots organizing.
The Northern Justice Project represents Alaskans in complex lawsuits against the State and Federal Governments, and large corporations. They have a proven track record of significant victories for their clients. From Medicaid, to Native American rights, to Special Education access, to tenants’ rights and more, they have successfully won many cases that have made an incredible difference for people living in their communities.