Program Basics

The history of food stamps in the United States began in 1939. Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food stamp program history continues to change to meet the hunger needs facing low-income individuals today.

The program is frequently addressed by Congress and the President of the United States to improve impoverished citizens’ access to nutritious foods and health-improving programs. Food stamp statistics provide a clear picture of the evolution of food stamp changes through the decades since it began.

Keep reading to learn about SNAP history and new food stamp rules that influence how people can access this valuable resource.

Food Stamp History from 1939 to 1989

America’s first food stamp program began when Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and administrator Milo Perkins devised a program for people living in poverty who were already receiving some form of relief program. This first step in food stamp program history used the sale of orange and blue paper stamps to increase low-income families’ food purchasing power. Buyers of these food stamps could use orange stamps to buy any food product. For every $1 orange stamp bought, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were also provided.

Blue food stamps were only redeemable for food that was considered farmer surplus. The program took off because farmers could use up their surplus food stores, and hungry people had open access to extra food. The first food stamp program was so successful that it ended in spring 1943 because it had effectively solved the problems of farmer food surplus and high hunger rates due to unemployment.

In the 1960s, President Kennedy called for an expansion of the food stamp program, effectively launching changes that would become the foundation of today’s SNAP program. President Johnson was responsible for the Food Stamp Act of 1964 that required all states to create a program with non-discrimination policies to ensure fair distribution of benefits.

SNAP history continued to evolve through the 1970s and 1980s, with economic downturns driving increases in food stamp program participation. Important SNAP program acts passed during these decades included the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 and the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988.

SNAP History from 1990 to 2016

During the late 1990s, SNAP history evolved with the development of the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card program. By 2004, all states were required to issue SNAP program benefits via these plastic cards instead of printed paper food stamps. EBT cards made a significant impact on the food stamps program, as it reduced benefit trafficking from 4 percent to around 1 percent, saving millions of dollars. The improvement of SNAP program education initiatives was also a hallmark of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Related Article: EBT Cards

President Obama made significant food stamp changes during his administration. Between 2008 and 2016, multiple food stamps law changes were made that resulted in record-high participation of 47.6 million people.

Food Stamps Statistics

Politicians, economists, social service workers and others have historically studied food stamp program statistics carefully to help the program provide assistance where it is most needed. Food stamp program cost factors, participant demographics and links to natural disasters are all areas of SNAP studies. Interesting facts include the following:

  • Between 2008 and 2013, individuals receiving food stamp program benefits increased dramatically. In January 2008, approximately 27.5 million Americans received SNAP. By mid-2013, nearly 48 million participants were receiving food stamps.
  • When food stamp changes reflect sudden jumps in enrollment, it is usually due to natural disasters. Massive spikes in SNAP program enrollment occurred in the fall of 2017 due to huge hurricanes making landfall in the south.
  • The average monthly SNAP program benefit each person received in 1981 was $40. By 2017, the average monthly food stamp program payment was $125.83.
  • In 2013, the federal government paid out $76 billion in annual food stamp program By 2017, that number had dropped to $64 billion, annually.
  • In 2017, the federal cost of SNAP administration topped 4.5 billion dollars. That does not include the amount that individual states spend on program administration costs.
  • The racial breakdown of SNAP program participants in 2016 included the following:
    • White/Caucasian: 38.9 percent
    • Black/African American: 24.9 percent
    • Hispanic: 11.9 percent
    • Asian: 2.8 percent
    • Native American: 1.1 percent
    • Unknown: 12.8 percent
  • In July 2018, California had the highest number of households participating in the SNAP program, with 1,923,253 households receiving benefits.
  • As of September 30, 2017 over 263,000 firms were authorized as SNAP retailers. That year, supermarkets and superstores redeemed 82 percent of all funds issued.
  • Since 2013, the number of farmers markets authorized as SNAP program participants has increased by 81 percent.

Recent Changes to the Food Stamps Program

Within the past 10 years, food stamp changes have been implemented to streamline and improve the way that benefits are delivered to recipients. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 boosted the existing SNAP-Ed health and nutrition education programs and set new food stamp rules related to school nutrition programs.

In 2012, President Obama loosened requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) who apply for food assistance. This food stamp change helped low-income ABAWDs make it through the economic downturn of that period of time.

The Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 Farm Bill, made food stamp program changes, including launching the idea of using mobile devices to redeem SNAP benefits. Pilot programs to test mobile device redemption of benefits could set off significant food stamp changes over the next decade. The Act also expanded SNAP program retailers to include government agencies and non-profit organizations that deliver food to housebound elderly and disabled low-income SNAP program participants.

Recent improvements in the economy and falling unemployment levels have resulted in a steady decline in food stamp program participation. In September 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released food stamps news updates that reported that 39.3 million people receiving SNAP program benefits.

Related Article: Food Stamps Work Requirements

It might also interest you: