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from Poverty and the Government in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

The food stamp program is a federal program to help low-income people buy food. While the modern food stamp program started in 1964, the program's origins date back to the New Deal of the 1930s. During 2006, 26 million people participated in the food stamp program (USDA, Food Stamp Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, farmers couldn't sell all their food because people were too poor to buy it. Meanwhile, people were starving. The federal government set up Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation to buy surplus farm products and distribute these to needy families. However, this program didn't work well: food was distributed only once a month, and people had to eat all the perishables before they went bad. Store owners complained that they were losing business, and nutritional needs were not always met because families had to accept whatever food happened to be available.

In May of 1939, the federal government began a food stamp plan: families purchased orange food stamps in an amount equal to their normal food expenditures. They were then given a free blue stamp for every two orange stamps. The orange stamps could be used to purchase any kind of food, while the blue stamps could be spent only on a list of surplus commodities. Recipients could use the food stamps at stores, thus allowing them to buy food throughout the month, instead of receiving all their monthly food ration at once. This food stamp program continued until 1943, when unemployment had dropped to almost zero because of the U.S. entry into World War II. About 20 million people participated in this program at one time or another (USDA, Food Stamp Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

While some members of Congress urged the federal government to start the food stamp program again in the 1950s, the government did not act until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to start eight food stamp programs in seven states. This soon expanded to forty-three programs. This program used only one kind of stamp, but was otherwise similar to the earlier program. Recipients paid an amount equal to their normal food expenses, and received in exchange food stamps of greater value. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 made this program permanent. Recipients were allowed to buy any kind of food with their stamps, except for alcoholic beverages and imported foods. States could decide whether or not to participate in the program, and each state set their own standards as to who was eligible to buy the food stamps. Although by 1969 about 3 million people were participating in the food stamp program, this was less than 22 percent of all poor people who lived in counties with food stamp programs (MacDonald 1977, 8; USDA, Food Stamp Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

During the 1960s, advocates for the poor urged the government to do more. In 1967, Senators Joseph Clark and Robert Kennedy investigated hunger in Mississippi and recommended that the government provide free food stamps to people without cash income, and distribute free surplus agricultural commodities. In 1968, the Citizens' Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States was formed by a group of prominent private citizens, including college presidents, directors of foundations and nonprofit organizations, union leaders, and church leaders. In response to the Mississippi situation, the Citizens' Board conducted a nationwide investigation of hunger and released a report, Hunger USA. They found that chronic hunger and malnutrition existed across the country. They found evidence of anemia, severe protein deficiency, growth retardation, and parasitic diseases associated with malnutrition. The Citizens' Board called on the president to declare a national emergency and institute emergency food programs; they also called for free food stamps (Citizens' Board 1968, 3, 16-22, 84-85).

This report received wide publicity through a national television program, “Hunger in America.” In 1971, the federal government passed amendments to the Food Stamp Act that set national standards as to who was eligible to buy the food stamps. Benefits also were increased. People with lower incomes paid less for their stamps, and those with the lowest income received their stamps for free. Amendments in 1973 required all states to offer the program by July of 1974, by which time about 14 million people were participating. Also in response to the discover of continued hunger, in 1972, the federal government created the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program (MacDonald 1977, 8-11; USDA, Food Stamp Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Shoppers use the check-out lines shortly after midnight at One Stop Food & Liquors in Chicago, May 2008. The market doors open at midnight at the beginning of each month for the express purpose of letting dozens of people shop the instant they have access to the new month's allotment of food stamps.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Benefits were expanded under the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which eliminated the requirement that recipients had to purchase their stamps. The law also provided more money to investigate fraud within the food stamp program. During the 1980s, funding for the program was cut back, and as a result poor Americans experienced more hunger. Legislation in 1988 and 1990 increased food stamp benefits. The food stamp program is an “entitlement” program—every eligible person receives benefits.

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the food stamp program was again revised. Most legal immigrants became ineligible, and able-bodied adults without dependents were limited to three months of food stamps unless they were working or participating in a work program. In 1997, some legal immigrants again became eligible for food stamps: children, the elderly, and the disabled. In 2002, immigrants who had been in the United States for at least five years were again eligible for the food stamp program.

In the 1990s, the “stamp” part of the food stamp program began to be phased out. In 1988, the government began to experiment with “electronic benefits transfer”—a debit-card type system that aimed to increase the efficiency of the program and eliminate fraud. In 1990, this kind of system was made an option for states. By 2002, all states were required to use an electronic benefits card rather than stamps.

Currently, food stamps can be used to buy almost any kind of food. To encourage good nutrition, in 1992, the federal government began providing money for nutrition education, and by 2006, all states were participating in the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program. Some state governments are interested in prohibiting the purchase of junk food or providing monetary incentives for the purchase of nutritious foods. In 2004, Minnesota requested federal permission to prohibit people from buying candy and soft drinks with their food stamps, but this request was denied. In 2006, California started a “Healthy Food Purchase” pilot program: for every $1 of food stamps spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, participants now receive money back as a bonus (Guthrie et al. 2007).

The food stamp program often does not provide enough money for all food needs. Recipients often find that their food stamp allotment runs out by the third week of the month. Food stamps are provided on the basis of family size, and the regulations do not take into consideration the ages or nutritional needs of the family members—so a family of three with an infant receives the same food stamp allotment as a family of three with a teenager. The food stamp program also does not take into consideration the fact that food costs more in some places than in other places. Despite the inadequacy of the program, food stamps do help many people. Several studies have found that children in low-income families that use food stamps have better nutrition than children in low-income families that do not use food stamps (Eisinger 1998, 53-55).

Some eligible people do not participate in the food stamp program. In 2005, between 50 percent and 95 percent of eligible people participated in the food stamp program, depending on the state. Overall, 65 percent of eligible people nationwide participated in the food stamp program in 2005. Some low-income people, such as the elderly poor and the working poor, fail to participate because they often are not aware that they might be eligible. Others find it difficult to apply for food stamps because they might have to make multiple trips to the food stamp office, which might be located far from their home. Still others are too embarrassed or too proud to use food stamps (Eisinger 1998, 51-52; “Reaching Those in Need” 2007).

In October 2008, the name of the food stamp program was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

See also: Emergency Food Programs; Great Depression; Hunger and Food Insecurity; National School Lunch Act; New Deal; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; Vouchers

Web Site

USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). Food Stamp Program/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (accessed October 2008).

  • Citizens' Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States. Hunger, U.S.A. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1968.
  • Eisinger, Peter K. Toward an End to Hunger in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.
  • Guthrie, Joanne F., Elizabeth Frazão, Margaret Andrews, and David Smallwood. “Improving Food Choices—Can Food Stamps Do More?” Amber Waves, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, April 2007. (accessed August 2008).
  • MacDonald, Maurice. Food, Stamps, and Income Maintenance. New York: Academic Press, 1977.
  • “Reaching Those in Need: State Food Stamp Participation Rates in 2005—Summary.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, October 2007. (accessed August 2008).
  • Copyright 2009 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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