Millions of dollars in food assistance for Alaskans may disappear in April without a new COVID-19 disaster declaration

Alaska could lose out on millions of dollars in additional food benefits if it doesn’t have a new public health disaster declaration in place by spring.

Alaska, along with other states, can ask the federal government for certain emergency benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — formerly known as food stamps — that Alaskans receive on top of their regular benefits during the pandemic, said Shawnda O’Brien, who directs the state’s public assistance department.

But those added dollars hinge on both a state and national emergency disaster declaration being in place each month. Alaska’s disaster declaration expired this month.

While the state was recently approved for the additional benefits next month — under a provision for states phasing out of disaster declarations — the extra benefits will not continue into April without another declaration, O’Brien said.

It’s hard to say exactly what the impact on Alaskans might be, but O’Brien said the change could affect thousands of Alaskans who receive SNAP benefits. The extra benefits amount to roughly $8 million each month, though that can change.

The loss per household or individual in extra benefits could vary from a few dollars to hundreds, depending on the size of the household, she said.

“This would be a huge loss, whether it was just a few dollars or whether it was a significantly higher amount,” O’Brien said.

The lapse comes at a time when Alaskans are experiencing serious food insecurity, significantly higher than in previous years, said Cara Durr, public engagement director at the Food Bank of Alaska. The need for food assistance in Alaska is unprecedented.

Food insecurity rates in the state rose roughly 30% last year, to around 125,000 Alaskans, according to Durr and Feeding America estimates.

SNAP provides monthly benefits to purchase food for low-income Alaskans, and Durr said the program is especially critical during the pandemic. Plus, the “boost” from the emergency allotments has been significant, she said. The $8 million in additional SNAP benefits equals more than 2.2 million meals a month, Durr said.

“When you’re in a situation that your financial status is uncertain, your income is uncertain or the ability to get to work even right now, in some cases, is uncertain,” said O’Brien, “any loss of any kind of benefit or anything with monetary value is going to have a huge impact.”

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