Melinda DeSoto sat down one morning at a computer at the Bishop Ott shelter in downtown Baton Rouge. That afternoon, she was one of the state’s newest recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

That’s the new name for the program formerly known as food stamps.

“It was fairly easy for me,” DeSoto said, who got her Louisiana Purchase benefits card the next week. “I didn’t know I’d be eligible.”

In January, the latest month for which data is available, nearly 1 million Louisianians took home more than $126 million in benefits that are designed to be used just on food, putting SNAP on the front lines of Louisiana’s food insecurity fight.

To get her SNAP benefits, DeSoto had to meet a range of criteria set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and fill out an application from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

The federal government funds the program, which is then administered by a state agency. In Louisiana, the Department of Children and Family Services manages SNAP.

The criteria, according to the USDA’s website, includes resource and income tests, and also makes special allowances for the elderly or disabled.

Resource tests mean a recipient household may not have more than $2,000 in assets in a bank account or $3,250 if at least one person is over 60 or disabled. Certain resources are not counted, such as a house and lot, most retirement plans or resources of recipients of Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The income tests refer to how much money a household makes, typically 130 percent of the federal poverty level for gross income. For instance, a family of four’s monthly income cannot exceed $2,498. Households where all members are receiving SSI, TANF or some other forms of assistance are exempted from the income test.

Some deductions are allowed, including a 20 percent deduction in earned income, dependant care deductions, medical expenses, child support and some shelter costs for homeless families.

Able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 50 can only get SNAP benefits for three months out of a 36-month period if they do not work or participate in a workfare or other training program.

Trey Williams, director of communications and governmental affairs for the state Department of Children and Family Services, said DeSoto is not alone in filling out her application online, and the ease of applying and maintaining benefits she experienced is a main reason why the state’s seen an uptick of SNAP recipients in recent years.

Even in rural areas, he said, about 85 percent of the applications are now filled out online, which is an “intuitive-type application” that cuts down on the old 12- to 14-page paper application.

“If you put in you have no kids, it’s not going to ask you any more questions about kids,” he said.

The state’s also partnered with more than 500 agencies to make access to benefits easier.

“Instead of making them go multiple places for benefits, if they were already going to the Council on Aging or the housing authority, they could apply for benefits while they were there,” he said.

Cindy Greenstein, executive director of the Louisiana Food Bank Association, said food banks are one such partner agency.

“We at the food banks are trying to help those that are eligible for SNAP apply and get their SNAP assistance,” she said, adding that the online application process is a credit to the state.

Sammy Guillory, DCFS’ deputy assistant secretary for programs, also said that maintaining benefits is much easier because most of the follow-up work can be done over the phone rather than by making recipients come into an office.

All of those efforts, Williams said, allow SNAP to be easily accessible to food insecure Louisianans. Statewide, Williams said, 85 percent of those eligible for SNAP benefits get them.

“That’s an area where, from a national level, we lead other states in that accessibility,” he said.

Shopping with SNAP

When DeSoto goes shopping with her SNAP card, which functions like a debit card, she can only use those benefits for food.

Exempted by USDA regulations are nonfood items like pet food, soap, household supplies and grooming items like toothpaste; alcoholic beverages and tobacco; vitamins and medicines; any food that will be eaten in the store and hot foods. All other edibles — from tomatoes to ice cream — are fair game.

“The federal government sets those standards,” Williams said. “That’s something we must abide by.”

DeSoto said that even though the shelter provides her and other residents meals, residents use their benefits to donate small items to the shelter, like sugar for coffee, or for foods they can prepare on their own, like microwave sandwiches.

“It’s a lot more convenient, a lot easier,” the first-time SNAP-recipient said, adding that shopping for food is easier when you don’t have to worry as much about how much — or how little — money you have in the bank.

But DeSoto is preparing to move out of the shelter into a home of her own, and she said her SNAP benefits will be especially helpful then, as will information from people like Southern University nutrition educator Kaci Ernest, who teaches classes on healthy eating at the shelter.

Ernest’s classes are part of SNAP-Ed, a nationwide effort to teach recipients and those eligible for benefits how to eat more healthfully on a budget. Locally, the program is managed by the Southern University and LSU AgCenters.

De’Shoin York Friendship is an associate specialist for nutrition for Southern’s AgCenter. She said the SNAP-Ed program teaches things like guidelines, budgets, food safety and physical activity.

“We go out and provide nutrition education for recipients,” she said, adding that the education comes in the form of handouts, classes like those at Bishop Ott and home visits.

DeSoto said she’s enjoyed all of Ernest’s classes and is keeping the information Ernest passes out for when she moves out of the shelter.

“It’s light; it’s not heavy on you,” DeSoto said of Ernest’s recipes, which are designed to be easy and budget-friendly. “We want to learn to cook for ourselves.”

‘S’ is for supplemental

DeSoto and other SNAP recipients still need to provide for some of their food budget. The USDA expects participating households to contribute about 30 percent of their net cash income on food. The SNAP benefits are meant to make up the rest.

“One thing key in the SNAP program is supplemental. It is not meant to serve the full needs of individuals in regards to their food budget,” DCFS’ Williams said. “What it is to do is to help supplement their food budget to help ensure they have the ability to access those healthy foods.”

Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, said SNAP benefits cover about two weeks worth of food, with the household and food banks or other food aid making up the rest.

Friendship said SNAP-Ed tries to teach techniques like cooking with leftovers and buying in bulk to get SNAP families to stretch their food dollars. And other organizations, like area farmers markets, are also getting into the act.

Thinking outside the big box

As of 2011, the USDA said about 230,000 stores across the country accepted SNAP benefits. That includes everything from big-box stores like Walmart and Target to corner stores, like the one DeSoto tends to use.

The Red Stick Farmers Market, which operates seasonally on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays and every Saturday morning, also takes SNAP benefits, director Copper Alvarez said.

“Our market for about the last two years has accepted SNAP,” she said. “We’re really seeing that grow.”

When DeSoto or another SNAP recipient brings their Louisiana Purchase card to the market, they’ll get a frequent buyer card and can exchange their card benefits for tokens to spend at the markets’ booths. After their frequent buyer card shows three visits, the market gives them $10 to spend.

“We’re trying to get people to think about where they use their SNAP benefits and how they use them,” Alvarez said, adding that the farmers market is also a cost-effective way to spend those benefits.

“There is a misconception that food at the farmers market is more expensive,” she said. “Typically, you can take $20 and spend on fruits and vegetables at the farmers market and feed your family for a week.”

In New Orleans, the Crescent City Farmers Market matches up to $20 of SNAP benefits per market visit, thanks to support from Louisiana Healthcare Connections.

Since the program started in 2009, Emery Van Hook Sonnier, director of markets for Market Umbrella, said the market has seen a 321 percent increase in SNAP use.

“Rather than spending SNAP benefits in a big-box store, these dollars are staying local,” Sonnier said. “It’s a great way to introduce shoppers to the seasonality you see at the farmers market.”

Williams said the state DCFS is working to expand SNAP incentives at farmers markets.

“We’re also working with the farmers markets as well,” he said. “We’ve been working with the USDA for providing grants to get other farmers markets on board.”

Joint efforts that involve organizations, industry and government — like expanding SNAP use to farmers markets — are key to helping SNAP recipients stand on their own two feet and to stemming food insecurity in Louisiana, Williams said.

“Poverty is not something that’s just the responsibility of DCFS, but education and the work force and the local community and the resources there,” he said. “The communities have to be involved. The individuals that get the assistance have to be involved. We have a program that helps people get job training they need so they can be self-sufficient and have the job security they need where they don’t need food stamps.”