38K Alaska households turn to Food Stamps during tight times

Tracy Peterson and her daughter apply for SNAP benefits during an event at the Sullivan Arena. Hillman/KSKA
Tracy Peterson and her daughter apply for SNAP benefits during an event at the Sullivan Arena. Hillman/KSKA

According to a new White House report, 38,000 Alaskan households receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Most people know SNAP by its original name: Food Stamps. Two-thirds of those households have children. Half of them are in deep poverty. The statistics go on and on. But is the program working? Many people say yes, though there are some hiccups.

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Tracy Peters didn’t expect to be sitting in the Sullivan Arena, waiting to pick up donated food and presents for Christmas as her preschooler ran up and down the stairs. She was working as a personal caregiver, but a month ago her hours were cut and some of her clients passed away. The her husband, a lineman, lost his job.

“(He) got laid off because of the weather,” she says. “And so we weren’t prepared for that because he was told he’d have winter work then they laid him off.”

Peters is applying for jobs, but in the meantime, she’s also applying for SNAP. She says she’s trying to keep her family healthy.

“So many people eat a bunch of junk food because they can’t afford the healthy stuff. And so that’s another reason I”m trying to apply. Because we’re eating a bunch of fattening foods. So I’m hoping this can help us with the healthy choices instead.”

The 24-page application sits on Peters’ lap. It asks for detailed information about income, assets, and medical history for everyone in the household.

“Well, this is actually a lot more steps that I thought it was. A little bit more difficult than I thought. But at least I brought paperwork to help me along.”

Applicants have to submit a lot of paperwork, like pay stubs, tax forms, and rental agreements, and the paper application.

“I know. It’s 2016 almost and we’re paper,” acknowledges Tammie Walker, the Chief of Field Operations for the state’s Department of Public Assistance, which administers the federally funded program.

Walker says she knows some people think the process is cumbersome. Though many people apply and get benefits within a month or two and don’t mind the process at all, others have stories about waiting for hours at offices or never getting called back about their applications. Walker says part of the problem is relying on physical files of paperwork that are spread out to offices around the state.

“The paper is killing us,” she says matter-of-factly. “And our commissioner knows it. They are very aware because they see the frustration from staff and from clients.”

Walker says the department is trying to streamline the application and eventually go digital, like the Medicaid application, but it takes time. And relative to the Medicaid backlog, the Food Stamps program is doing very well.

According to the Food Bank of Alaska, about 27 percent of people who qualify for the program don’t apply. Some say it’s not worth the effort if they only get about $18 per month. Benefits range widely. Others don’t know that owning a house or a snow machine that’s used for daily transportation doesn’t disqualify you.

SignMany of the people who apply, like Brandy Straight, say SNAP has been a necessary lifeline. She lost her job and took over the care of her disabled brother and her four children. The household of seven is living on her fiance’s $12 per hour job. Straight says before getting benefits, they had to choose between rent and food.

“But I do feel it could help better if they look more at the medical needs that people have. Because people with diabetes–you have to go to more particular foods. My brother has brain damage and has seizures, so there are special diets. But I can’t really get the diets he needs because then it’s more expensive. So you have to be very careful to pick what you pick.”

But she, and many others, say she’s grateful for all that she gets.

David Patterson, his girlfriend, and their baby were homeless before they starting receiving SNAP and other benefits. He says the program helped him put aside enough money to find a place to rent instead of couch surfing.

“We actually got established in our own place and were able to keep food on the table. All around, it was amazing.”

Like 57 percent of the adults who receive SNAP benefits, Patterson is working. He says he’s a commercial fisherman and tries to get other jobs in the off-season. But he uses SNAP when he needs it to make sure he can keep a roof over his and his child’s head.