'People are really starving.' Alaska food bank urges legislative action
It's happening right here at home -- the state says thousands of Alaskans are going hungry and their ability to get food hinges on a decision in Juneau.
According to the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, about 1,500 Alaskans-- including families-- can't get their food stamps renewed because the state doesn't have enough staff to process their applications.
By law, the food stamp applications must be processed within 30 days. But right now, the average turnaround time is running about 45 days, according to Division Director, Monica Windom. And, in some cases, families have gone more than three months without getting any food.
"People are really starving, actually," said Sarra Khlifi at the Food Bank of Alaska, where she says Alaskans from around the state have been calling, desperate for help. "We had one guy who called and told us he had lost 14 pounds over a couple of months because he had been waiting for his benefits."
Khlifi says just last week, her coworker took calls from 15 different people who didn't know where else to turn.
"I haven't received any benefits for January, February and March," one man said in a voicemail to the Food Bank, as his baby cried in the background.
Like his, there are dozens of other messages in the Food Bank's inbox.
"I didn't receive any benefits for the months of January," said another man, from rural Alaska.
"That message was from February 1, and he had turned in his recertification in December and didn't have benefits for the whole month of January," Khlifi said of his case. "That's just one of many cases we've heard and received."
Windom says her staff has been overwhelmed by Medicaid cases since the 2015 program expansion. Now, it can't keep up with the food stamp program either.
"I was a public assistance recipient myself, so, I know the struggle those families are going through," Windom said Tuesday. "If we're a month late getting to it, that means a month where they don't have food."
Windom is asking the state legislature for help, and the state ombudsman is recommending lawmakers answer the call.
A months-long investigation by the state ombudsman found that right now, the state is actually breaking the law because it's failing to meet the timelines mandated for processing applications. It appears the only way to fix it is to hire more people.
"At some point, there just reaches a point where people can't work any harder," said state ombudsman, Kate Burkhart, who authored the report.
Burkhart's staff spent time at the Division of Public Assistance.
"It's not an issue of not allocating their resources effectively, it's an issue of not having enough resources to do the work," Burkhart said.
For her part, Windom is asking lawmakers to fund 41 more positions.
"We're just treading water right now," Windom said of the current staffing situation.
But so far, the Alaska Senate has said "no."
"My message to them now would be 'please fund these 41 staff positions,'" said Khlifi, who's testified before lawmakers on the issue during the 2018 legislative session.
They're 41 positions for the 1,500 Alaskans statewide who are worried about when their next meal is coming.
Both Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska House have supported funding for the additional staffing to address the backlog in public assistance. But the Senate removed all of that money from its version of the budget.
Right now, the two legislative bodies are still working to reach a final agreement on the legislation.
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