News & Events

SNAP Works for Alaska, By Sarra Khlifi

Imagine putting together a healthy, nutritious meal for yourself with $1.97.

That is the amount per meal most Alaskans on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have to help put food on their table. It is a lifeline for people to cover part of their grocery bill every month so they have more money left for rent, utilities, and other bills. If you are on a budget where every cent counts, SNAP makes a world of difference. Right now, Congress is debating devastating cuts and structural changes to SNAP, following President Trump’s proposal to slash the program by $193 billion over the next decade.

Most people know SNAP as food stamps—although few people know the impact the program has on communities in our state. Here in Alaska, 89,000 people use SNAP to purchase food items. That’s one in nine Alaska residents who have been laid off, can’t find full-time work, unforeseen medical expenses, or otherwise need a little extra help to get by in hard times.

In his budget released in May, President Trump proposed cost savings through damaging mechanisms like shifting program costs to states, collecting fees from SNAP retailers, and imposing harsh work requirements. Historically, there has been strong bipartisan support of the program; President Nixon expanded the program in 1969, Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas worked with Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota in the 1970s, and present-day moderate Republicans actively support SNAP. Both parties were once united by the common goal of eradicating hunger in the our country. While that support still largely exists for charitable hunger distribution programs, SNAP has become a contentious, politicized program.

When I am out in the community educating people about hunger in Alaska, I learn the myths and misconceptions about how SNAP works and who is on it. In light of the imminent budget threats, it is critical for Alaskans to know SNAP is the most effective anti-hunger program in the country. It is an entitlement program, meaning it is guaranteed to those who qualify under specific rules, and their benefit amount is determined by monthly income and expenses. With robust checks and balances built in, the current structure allows program caseload to expand when the economy weakens, and contract as the economy recovers. This ensures SNAP immediately responds to help families and individuals in tough times, and caseloads drop when times are better. As Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said recently about SNAP, “You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.”

In the network of food pantries I work with, families on SNAP are in line at a food distribution by the end of the month. Alaska’s current economic climate is reflected in charitable food distributors reporting record high numbers of Alaskans coming through for food. SNAP benefits are helpful but modest, and many people need additional help obtaining enough food for adequate, consistent meals. As hard as they work, food pantries would not be able to make up the amount of meals SNAP provides - which is ten times the amount given out by food pantries. SNAP allows people to avoid spending hours of their day driving or taking the bus to different food pantries just to get enough food for the week. Cuts to SNAP would mean longer lines at food pantries, and more hungry Alaskans because charity alone cannot solve hunger.

I constantly hear that SNAP recipients need to “get back to work”. What most people don’t realize is SNAP helps millions of low-wage workers access food. Many workers participate in SNAP while their earnings or hours are low, or in between jobs. Considering nearly two-thirds of the people SNAP serves are children, seniors, or people with disabilities, most SNAP participants who are able to work already do. In Alaska, 37,000 children, 7,000 seniors, and 5,000 individuals with disabilities rely on SNAP to have an adequate diet. These are the populations being told to pound the pavement and work for their food.

In a perfect world, a current SNAP recipient would be writing this piece. But people living with hunger are burdened by stigma and shame, due to inaccurate portrayals of who uses SNAP. The shame follows them when they use their EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card to check out at the grocery store. If they don’t have enough money on their card, they have to put items they had carefully scrutinized and calculated the cost of back on the shelves. They can feel the eyes of the person behind them in line judging if they deserve to be buying those items with taxpayer dollars. The “welfare queen” and “surfer dude” tropes are singular stories used to push a certain political agenda, not the real people on SNAP. SNAP recipients are neighbors, co-workers, or could be you after an expensive medical emergency. Just like anyone else, SNAP recipients want to own a home, send their kids to college, and have a decent job with a living wage.

Fellow Alaskans are facing hard times and don’t always know where their next meal will come from. The most important thing we can do for them is voice our support for SNAP and hold our elected officials accountable for doing the same. This Hunger Action Month, consider signing our support letter for SNAP, attending our One-Course Discourse the program, or volunteering at one of our Mobile Food Pantries. Let’s make hunger a nonpartisan issue we tackle together.

Sarra Khlifi is the Program Manager for the Alaska Food Coalition, a statewide anti-hunger coalition working to increase access to food for all Alaskans.