History of Food Stamps

The history of food stamps can be traced back to 1939 when the first idea of a national program was tested. But that doesn’t entirely answer the question of when did food stamps start in the United States.

As through the decades since, food stamp program history has evolved into the complex and comprehensive program available today. Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the history of food stamps continues to grow and change to meet the needs of an ever-increasing population.

Review the sections below to learn about SNAP history in the U.S. and find out how the SNAP program continues to improve the lives of millions of people today.

1939 – America’s First Food Stamp Program

Although the idea of America’s first food stamp program is attributed to several individuals, two men stand out in most accounts. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and administrator Milo Perkins devised a food stamp program for low-income people who were already receiving relief. This early system in food stamp program history allowed these individuals to purchase orange and blue paper stamps that expanded their normal food budgets. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food product, and for every $1 a person spent on orange stamps, they received 50 cents worth of blue stamps as well.

However, these blue stamps could only be used to buy food that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) had determined to be in surplus. The food stamp program was a huge success because it enabled farmers to find a use for their surplus food stores, and hungry people were able to obtain it at a deep discount. Over the course of four years, this first SNAP program reached 20 million people in over half of the counties in America. The first food stamp program ended in spring 1943 because it had effectively ended the problems it was intended to solve: how to deal with unsellable food surplus and high rates of unemployment.

1961 – 1964 – Pilot Food Stamp Program and Food Stamp Act

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s first Executive Order called for expansion of food stamp program ideas that had been circulating since 1943. In February 1961, Kennedy launched food stamp pilot programs that would become the foundation for future SNAP program development. As with the 1939 food stamp program, participants were required to purchase the food stamps themselves. However, the special stamps for surplus foods were not issued. Isabelle Kelley, the first woman in the USDA to head an action program, became the new food stamp program director.

Related Article: Food Stamps Statistics

In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress to pass legislation making the food stamp program permanent. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 required states to create a food stamp program plan of operation, prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin and appropriated program funding.

1964 – 1976 –Program Expansion

By April 1965, food stamp programs expanded to serve over half a million participants. Participation grew annually and reached 15 million by October 1974. Earlier that year, amendments to the food stamp program authorized the USDA to pay 50 percent of all states’ costs for administering food stamp benefits. The program expanded nationwide and included Puerto Rico. By 1976, a record high number of 18.5 million people were receiving food stamps.

1977 – The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977

The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 was a bipartisan compromise between Democrats and Republicans to help increase low-income families’ access to the food stamps program. It also tightened controls on program administration. Perhaps the most significant result of the act is how it eliminated the purchase requirement attached to earlier food stamp programs. Eliminating the participant purchase requirement removed a significant barrier that kept many poor people from accessing the help that food stamps were intended to provide. Other important points of the act included:

  • Making income eligibility guidelines follow the poverty line.
  • Regulating figures used to calculate net income, acceptable deductions and resources.
  • Restricting eligibility for aliens and students.
  • Allowing stores to issue cash change up to 99 cents.
  • Requiring participating stores to sell a certain amount of staple foods to participate in the food stamp program.
  • Setting ground rules for Indian Tribal Organizations administration of the food stamp program on reservations.

The Act also improved access to the food stamp program by expanding certification options to include phone, mail or home visits. For first time in food stamp program history, the 30-day application processing standard was enacted, and it also required states to develop a disaster plan for food stamp participants. By 1981, the history of food stamps added a new record participation level of 22.4 million people.

1980s – Budget Cutbacks and Domestic Hunger Recognition

This decade in food stamp program history initially brought cutbacks in the program, resulting in a gross income eligibility test in addition to the established net income eligibility test already in place. Program outreach was no longer funded by federal dollars and retirement accounts began being counted as assets when determining eligibility.

However, a severe domestic hunger problem in the later years of the 1980s improved access to the food stamp program again, largely by eliminating sales tax on food stamp program purchases and increasing the resource limit for most households to $2,000. Another Food Stamp Act was passed in 1985 requiring all states to begin an Employment and Training program for food stamp program participants.

The Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 was another significant point in food stamp history, as it simplified the way medical deductions and earned income tax credits were calculated. In addition, it marked the first time in food stamp history that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) was mentioned as an alternative to paper stamps.

1988 – 2004 –The Development of EBT

When did food stamps start issuing EBT cards? The first EBT pilot program in Reading, PA marked the first time in the history of food stamps that plastic cards were used to deliver benefits to food stamp program participants. Over time, it became evident how much EBT enhanced the effectiveness of SNAP program operation for both administrators and participants. By July 2004, EBT made food stamp program history when all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands issued SNAP program benefits via EBT systems.

Perhaps EBT’s largest impact was reducing SNAP program trafficking (exchanging food stamps for cash) from 4 percent to around 1 percent. The USDA plans to have all participants in another food assistance program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), using EBT by 2020.

During this timeframe, SNAP history reached other milestones, creating several food stamp program Nutrition Education plans to improve participants’ health. Welfare reform became a focus for the nation and often resulted in food stamp program improvements. However, during the late 1990s, SNAP program participation declined. This was largely due to falling unemployment levels.

2008 – Present – Improvements and Increased SNAP Program Participation

During President Obama’s administration, several acts were passed that improved access to the SNAP program. These changes to the food stamps program resulted in record high levels of participation. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 was also called The Farm Bill. Its impact on SNAP history was officially changing the name to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. States were given the flexibility to rename their own programs but were encouraged to include SNAP as part of the name.

SNAP program education increased with the addition of SNAP-Ed. The Healthy Incentives Pilot program tested the ability of point-of-purchase incentives to encourage SNAP program participants to buy healthier food options. This was also the era of food stamp program history when benefits were required to be issued in one lump sum each month.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 attempted to stimulate the economy in response to the Great Recession. SNAP program benefit levels increased between April 2009 and October 2013 and provided an economic stimulus to the economy.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 reauthorized SNAP-Ed education programs and school nutrition programs. The Agricultural Act of 2014, or the 2014 Farm Bill, made important changes to the SNAP program, including pilot programs to use mobile devices to redeem SNAP benefits. The definition of SNAP program retailers was expanded to include non-profit organizations and government agencies that deliver food to elderly and disabled low-income individuals.

SNAP history program records were set in 2013 when a new record high of 47.6 million people participated in the food stamp program. In the years since, SNAP program participation has steadily declined. In 2017, SNAP program participation was measured at 42.1 million people.

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