Bulk food in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Bulk food in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

After years of backlogged applications kept thousands of Alaskans from accessing food aid, the state’s health department appears to be maintaining the program’s recovery.

State officials said they overcame the backlog in March. Deb Etheridge, director of the Division of Public Assistance, said the agency is processing roughly 90% of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications on time, a major improvement over January, when it was processing only 10% of applications and 5% of recertifications on time.

“I’m so proud of the work we’re doing on SNAP,” she said. “We’re watching that closely. I can’t ever take my eyes off of it, right? We don’t ever take our eyes off of it. But we’ve been doing really, really well.”

Participation in SNAP in Alaska grew by more than 45% over the last year, according to federal data that measured from March 2023 to March 2024. It was the biggest increase in food stamp program participation in the nation by a wide margin — and a dramatic turnaround from the fall, when the state had one of the nation’s fastest falling participation rates.

The extreme gains underline what was a huge gap in service. The latest federal data shows that the increase brings the state close to its average participation before the backlog. As of this March, just over 77,000 Alaskans receive food aid. But in December of 2023 only 32,500 people could access the program. As a point of reference, more than 85,000 people participated in 2021.

Etheridge credits her employees’ hard work, as well as a new, online application system that makes it easier for people seeking food aid to get all of their documentation to the state. Her division launched the application at the end of December 2023. She said she hopes to make that kind of online application accessibility possible for most of the programs DPA manages, including Medicaid.

“We’re working right now on that all-programs application. So it’ll be very similar to our online SNAP application,” she said. Heating assistance and a child care application would not be part of that, she said.

The governor’s budget included funds for her division to hire 30 additional full-time employees. Etheridge said those jobs should be posted soon.