‘Hungry, frustrated and unheard’: With food stamp backlog, Alaska parent struggles to feed son

A state leader cites multiple reasons for the growth of the backlog, which has no clear end in site

This article was originally published in Alaska Beacon. Read it here.

The last time Palmer resident Jessica Clayton received food stamps to help feed her and her 10-year-old son was Nov. 1. Clayton said Monday she’s feeling “hungry, frustrated and unheard, like I don’t matter, like my kid doesn’t matter.” 

She’s been getting by with the help of two different food banks and the generosity of friends and family who hunt and fish. To ensure her kid can eat, Clayton eats less, which takes away from her ability to parent, she said.   

“I can’t be an effective parent when I’m hungry. I don’t have energy. I’m cranky,” Clayton said.

In Alaska, the state Department of Health’s Division of Public Assistance oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The state is currently processing a backlog of SNAP applications and recertifications, which has deprived Alaskans of timely food stamps. The state health commissioner, last week, said she doesn’t know when the backlog of SNAP benefits will be cleared, though her department is working on solutions. 

Clayton is frustrated and ashamed that she can’t provide her son with different food options. 

“Food tastes different when you have to eat it than when you have a choice. I don’t know how else to explain it: Food just tastes different when you don’t have other options,” she said. 

Clayton mailed in her recertification paperwork – which is actual paper – to the Alaska Division of Public Assistance at the end of October, something she’s required to do every six months, and expected to get her next food stamps Dec. 1. When she didn’t, she emailed the division.

Clayton wrote: “I haven’t received my food stamps for December and they are always on time so I’m sure it has something to do with recertification.” She reiterated information that was in the recertification paperwork – updates on her employment and household. 

It took the state a month to reply to Clayton’s email. The Jan. 3 email acknowledged receipt of the recertification paperwork on Nov. 3 and her email on Dec. 1, and said, “We are working as quickly as possible to work through our recertifications. Thank you for your patience.” 

Under federal law, the Department of Health must provide ongoing SNAP benefits to eligible applicants no later than 30 days after the date of application. Households that qualify for expedited processing are required to get their benefits within seven days of the application being filed. Many Alaska families have been waiting months, some longer than Clayton. Earlier this month, 10 Alaskans filed a lawsuit against the state, saying it failed to provide food stamps within the time frames required by federal law. 

The email was the only communication Clayton’s received from the state, except for an automated email response, she said: “No phone call, no paperwork, no nothing.”

So on top of the hunger and frustration is the unknown. Clayton said she has no idea when the food stamps will come or why there’s a delay. 

“At least [the state] could say, ‘Hey, we’ll definitely have you done by January,’ or something, then you know how long you have to wait it out. But this is an unknown; they could still turn me down. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just sitting in limbo with an open case,” Clayton said. “Like, did I do something wrong? At least tell me there’s a light at the end of my tunnel somewhere.” 

Clayton said she and a few other people she knows who have waited months for food stamps have not received any explanation for what’s causing the delay.

“None of us feel important enough and we don’t know what to do. We don’t even know why this is happening. Like we don’t even know why we’re still waiting,” she said. 

Why Clayton, many others are waiting, according to the state

The Division of Public Assistance’s backlog of initial applications, recertifications and expedited applications started in August, which is “when we received 8,000 SNAP recertifications,” Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg said during the Jan. 24 Senate Health and Social Services Committee meeting

The state said it can’t give an accurate number for how large the backlog is, but as of last week, the state had issued recertification SNAP benefits for September, “and so they really are going through that October backlog; it’s less than 900 right now,” Hedberg said. 

“That being said, I know that we are towards the end of January, and the division is still working through October, which is not acceptable for those Alaskans who are in need and are entitled to benefits,” she said. 

Hedberg said there are three main causes for the backlog. One of them is outdated information technology systems used to determine eligibility, including one system that Hedberg said was created in 1959. A slide during her presentation to the Senate committee said, “Fiscal crisis delayed efforts to modernize the system.” 

Hedberg said the department struggles to find employees who can reprogram and update the eligibility information system. The department currently has only one programmer who understands it. 

“The immediate goal … is to hire additional programmers to finish the updates to the [eligibility information system] system,” Hedberg said. Once that happens, it would allow the department to lengthen the recertification period from every six months to every 12, cutting the amount of filings the state must handle.

Another cause for the backlog, Hedberg said, was the “the burden of the pandemic that required additional manual processing of benefits to eligible Alaskans.” Also, the state ending its public health emergency in July and the federal Food and Nutrition Service clarifying policy around the same time resulted in a higher volume of SNAP recertifications. 

The department said a May cyberattack is the third major cause for the backlog. In addition, a Department of Health spokesperson noted another cause: a high vacancy rate in Division of Public Assistance staffing. 

The state’s ideas for solutions

On top of trying to hire IT staff to help reprogram the eligibility system, the state is pursuing a contract to support the virtual call center that allows people to talk to an eligibility technician. According to the state, the call center has been receiving 1,000 to 1,500 calls a day, and hasn’t processed applications in real time since the end of October in an effort for more callers to talk to a live person. 

Hedberg said her department is working with the departments of Administration and Law to pursue a time-limited emergency contract for staffing. 

“Temporarily, we are looking at a staffing contract with a known vendor that actually knows our systems. We already have a working relationship with them. We are going to contract so that they can staff the virtual call center, answer the questions, and collect that basic information and pass that over to our eligibility technicians,” she said. 

The department is also looking to contract help with communicating and reaching out to Alaskans about the backlog situation. With three Department of Health public information positions vacant, Hedberg said the department has “a small contract for additional support to help us with what I call crisis communication.” 

Other fixes include getting a waiver from the federal government so the division doesn’t have to conduct unnecessary interviews. The division is also recruiting more eligibility technicians.