How Food Stamps Really Started

How Food Stamps Really Started

Trista - January 15, 2020

October 29, 1929, is a date that American history will never forget. Known as Black Tuesday, it’s the date the New York Stock Exchange crashed and set the Great Depression into first gear. Lasting nearly a decade, the President of the United States and Congress tried several steps to help America climb out of the depression.

One step Congress took was creating food stamps. While you know what this program does today, what it did during the 1930s through the 1940s was slightly different from today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt paid for farmers to slaughter their pigs and plow their fields. Yet, most Americans couldn’t afford the prices of groceries until the government established little paper squares.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Early examples of food stamp coupons. Getty/Jstor Daily.

32. The Great Depression Gave Food Stamps Life

The Great Depression started in August 1929, a few months before the New York Stock Exchange crashed in October 1929. Of course, people didn’t see this as the start of a great worldwide depression at the time. They felt that the stock market would bounce back, bringing jobs for thousands of unemployed Americans.

However, the hopeful attitude that many Americans had didn’t keep others from believing the worst. Many people talked about the preparations the government needed to take to make sure American citizens received the supplies they needed, especially when it came to food.

How Food Stamps Really Started
The first food stamps are examined right off the press. Washington Post.

31. Food Stamps Were A Way To Get America Out OF The Great Depression

Even though many people talked about the idea of a coupon that unemployed Americans could receive for food in the early 1930s, food stamps didn’t get off the press until 1939. Ten years after the start of the Great Depression, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to find a way to end the worldwide depression.

Once the government sat down and developed a food program plan, food stamps became the first item to come off the press. While the United States government wanted to make sure food stamps would help Americans, they felt more pressure to ensure the program would push America out of the Great Depression.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Not every grocery store approved of food stamps, but the United States Government tried to make sure the program helped everyone. The Conversation.

30. Food Stamps Were Meant To Help Everyone

The United States government took several months, if not longer, to establish the food stamp program. Other than making sure that everything was in place for the program, the government needed to find a way to help businesses as well as residents.

Not only did the government work to help the hungry and businesses, but they also used the food stamp program to help farmers. They paid the farmers for their goods and services. Farmers received payment for plowed fields and slaughtered their animals. Unfortunately, no matter how hard the government tried, they couldn’t create the perfect system.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Stores advertised the good they did for farmers and other people with posters like this. Wikimedia.

29. People Needed To Look For Signs To Use Food Stamps

The government never forced grocery stores to use food stamps. The owners always had a choice, and their decision depended on several reasons. Some owners agreed right away to help out people in their community by allowing food stamps. Other owners needed more time to understand the process before they agreed to it.

Consumers with food stamps had to look for various signs that told them the store-approved food stamps. Signs like the one above or stating “Food Stamps Accepted Here” saw placements all over the stores. If a store didn’t have a sign, consumers couldn’t use their food stamps.

How Food Stamps Really Started
An aerial view of downtown Rochester, New York, from 1938. Wikimedia.

28. Rochester, New York debuted Food Stamps In 1939

While some people believe anyone in the United States received food stamps right away, this isn’t true. Food stamps debuted in Rochester, New York, on May 16, 1939. This became like a trial run for officials so they could understand the program a bit better.

The FSCC officials felt that food stamps would help ease hunger in America during the Great Depression, but they needed to know how people reacted. How many people came to pick up food stamps? Would people benefit from the program? By limiting food stamps to one area, they could understand the process better.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Six months after Food Stamps came out, the first fraud case is recorded. 13wham.

27. People Violated The Food Stamp Program Since The Beginning

Food stamp fraud is nothing new. It’s something that the American government and civilians are always aware of. In fact, one reason people don’t like the program is because of the people who misuse the program. However, the first person to cheat the system wasn’t a consumer.

Nick Salzano was a retailer who decided to overcharge his customers that bought their food stamps. Once the government found out about Salzano’s wrongdoings, his story became widely published as they used him as an example of what not to do. Fortunately, most people remained honest when it came to the food stamp program through the 1940s.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Customers were buying groceries in 1939. Russell Lee/In Your State.

26. Groceries Exchanged Their Food Stamps For Money

One of the most significant factors the government needed to work out before they issued food stamps was how they would reimburse grocers. No business became forced to accept food stamps, but most of them did once they learned that they would receive a little reimbursement for the food stamps.

All the grocer needed to do was bring the food stamps to a local bank or one of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) offices. While the grocers didn’t always receive the most money for the food stamps, so many people took part in the program that most shelves became empty within the first few days.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Before Food Stamps started, people waited in soup lines for their meal. Food Storage Moms.

25. The First Official Food Stamp Program Ended In 1943

Today, millions of people use the SNAP program, the modern-day version of food stamps. This statistic hasn’t changed much as by the time the first food stamp program ended in 1943, four years after it started, over 20 million Americans took part in the program at one time or another.

The highest rate of people using the food stamp program at one time is 4 million people, which occurred in the early 1940s. The food stamp program’s total bill in 1943 was $242 million. The program ended because the unemployment rate lowered, and not as many people used the program.

How Food Stamps Really Started
People still used soup and bread lines after the food stamp program ended to get their meals. Vintage News.

24. The American Government Continued To Study The Food Stamp Program

Even after the food stamp program officially ended in 1943, the United States Government continued to study the program. The Department of Agriculture wanted to know as much as it could about the program. People came up with reports that they sent to the legislature for further discussion.

Through the studies and reports, people started to notice that American citizens could still use the program. Thousands of people again reported themselves as unemployed and unable to care for their families. Other people stated that while they work, they don’t get paid enough to buy the groceries their family needs.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Orange and blue food stamps from 1939. History.

23. The Colors On The Food Stamps Had Meaning

All food stamps had a price, such as “25 cent” written on them to show the cashier how much each stamp was worth. Each food stamp also had a color, either orange or blue, in 1939, that described the stamp’s purpose.

Stamps that are blue in color were good for surplus food only, such as eggs, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. These foods were usually found in stores. People didn’t need to worry about stores running out of surplus food. The orange color meant the purchaser could get any grocery item they wanted, except for liquor and items consumed at the location.

How Food Stamps Really Started
American soldiers from Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division marched along the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background in France during August 1944. Army Times.

22. World War II Affected The Food Stamp Program

World War II started for Germany and other parts of the world a few years before the United States entered in December 1941. While the food program was still active in 1941, people started to notice the rate of unemployment decreasing during 1942. Part of this happened because many people joined forces to help fight in the war.

As the United States continued to fight in World War II, the economy continued to strengthen. A couple of years after America entered the war, the government decided to stop food stamps because the war brought more jobs and eased crop surpluses.

How Food Stamps Really Started
There are a lot of food stamps/SNAP myths that people don’t realize. Reddit.

21. Several Myths Surrounding The Food Program Started During The 1940s

The food program always had its critics. It didn’t matter if the program started without any major issues or not. Many people didn’t understand the plan and felt that people received a hand-out from the government when they shouldn’t. This criticism escalated after a few fraudulent crimes.

Many myths that SNAP deals with today started in the 1940s and grew more when the program came back during the 1960s. Some of these myths include undocumented immigrants receive benefits, and the only people who use the benefits are people who refuse to work.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Leonor Sullivan, US Representative from Missouri. Wikimedia.

20. Several Senators Tried To Start Up The Food Stamp Program After The Program Ended

Even though America remained busy fighting in World War II, many Senators decided to challenge the ending of the food stamp program. First, they felt that families who had members fighting oversearch would need the service. Then Senators stated that American soldiers needed food stamps as they returned home.

The fight to bring back the program continued well into the 1950s when Congresswoman Leonor K. Sullivan tried everything she could think of to get legislation to pass a food stamp act. Unfortunately, several years would pass before the return of food stamps.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Soldiers from World War I. Duke Today.

19. The First Recipient Was A World War I Veteran

People couldn’t wait to receive the first batch of food stamps, but the most eager person was Ralston Thayer. An unemployed machinist was also a World War I veteran who decided to head to the old post office building in Rochester, New York, that day in 1939 because the surplus food program seemed simple enough.

All that is known of Thayer is he gave $4 from his unemployment check to the clerk, and she handed him $2 of blue food stamps for free along with $4 of orange food stamps. While reporters tried to talk to Thayer, he kept to himself.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Woman paying with food stamps in 1939. History.

18. Many Other People Stood In Line For The First Food Stamps

Close to 2,000 Rochester residents followed Thayer into the food stamp line on May 16, 1939. Each one received 50 cents worth of blue food stamps for every $1 value of orange food stamps they purchased. This gave them an upper hand when it came to buying groceries.

One woman told the reporters that she was excited to purchase the best food for her and her family. Another woman stated, “We can take our pick on these surplus commodities instead of taking what they give us.”

How Food Stamps Really Started
Customer paying with food stamps. History.

17. Not Everyone Loved The Food Stamp Program

Most people enjoyed the Food Stamp program because it gave them coupons to purchase food that they couldn’t receive otherwise. You didn’t have to use food stamps, and residents of Rochester, New York, who had a job, didn’t care to look into the food stamp program.

The people who became torn about the program were local business owners, especially grocery store owners. Some owners stated the program was a blessing because it allowed them to give food to people without losing all their money. Other owners noted the program was a horrible idea as they lost money.

How Food Stamps Really Started
President John F. Kennedy. Wikimedia.

16. President John F. Kennedy’s First Step In The Office Included Expanding Food Stamps

At his time, Kennedy became known as a progressive president. He wanted to help American citizens in a way that most presidents didn’t. While he is known for his Civil Rights work, one of the first steps Kennedy took once he stepped into the White House was expanding the food stamp program.

On February 2, 1961, President Kennedy announced the initiation of Food Stamp pilot programs. These programs eliminated the concept of exceptional surplus food but requested that citizens continue to purchase food stamps. The United States Congress agreed with Kennedy’s decision and started working toward distributing food stamps again.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Congresswoman Isabelle Kelley. New York Times.

15. Isabelle Kelley Became The First Woman To Oversee The Food Stamp Program

Once Kennedy signed his first Executive Order to expand the food stamp program, the government needed to create a group under the Department of Agriculture to manage the program. Four people, including Congresswoman Isabelle Kelley, agreed to become a part of the group.

In the process of Kelley becoming a member, she also became the first woman to become a part of the Department of Agriculture to head an action program. On top of this, Kelley became the first director of the expanded food stamp program.

How Food Stamps Really Started
In 1955, Isabelle Kelley received an award for superior service from Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of agriculture, for helping to administer the Special Milk Program for schoolchildren. New York Times.

14. In The Position, Isabelle Kelley Helped Feed Millions Of People

Isabelle Kelley is a Congressman that is often overlooked in history. Not only was she a part of Congress before it became famous for women to enter politics, but she also became the first director of the food stamp program under President Kennedy and made sure she did a perfect job.

Kelley spends years doing her best to work with the government, retailers, farmers, and consumers to make sure the food program did what it needed to do. In fact, within five years, Kelley fed over six million American citizens.

How Food Stamps Really Started
1961 Food Stamp Coupons. Forever Young.

13. The First Recipients Of The 1961 Food Stamp Program Were Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy

Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, West Virginia, became the first recipients of the food stamp coupons under the new program. They received $95 in food stamp coupons on May 29, 1961. They used this money to feed their 15-person household.

Once Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy received their coupons, they went directly to Henderson’s Supermarket. Among other meats, milk, cheese, they purchased a can of pork and beans, which was the first transaction under the food stamp program. The family continued to use the program for years to help feed their families. They always stated how grateful they were for the program.

How Food Stamps Really Started
President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wikimedia.

12. The Food Stamp Program Became Permanent In 1964

Unfortunately, President Kennedy died before he could complete the job he wanted to with the Food Stamp Program. Thankfully, the next president, Lyndon B. Johnson, decided to take the step Kennedy never got to try and pushed to make the food stamp program permanent.

The proposal went to the legislature on April 17, 1963, but wasn’t approved immediately. In fact, it took until 1964 before Congress passed a law to make the program permanent. Not only did the program allows people to receive food stamps for the rest of their lives if they qualified, but it continued to help the farming company.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Lyndon B. Johnson in the conference room of the White House. The Atlantic.

11. Many Changes Occurred With The Food Stamp Act Of 1964

Congress took their time approving the Food Stamp Act of 1964 because they couldn’t agree on what the act should contain. Some of the factors they came up with include that recipients needed to purchase food stamps and prohibited against political belief, race, religion, and natural origins.

Other factors included a State Plan of Operation, alcohol purchases are not allowed, imported food is not allowed, and funding costs are divided between the Federal Government and each state. Funding for the first year was set at $75 million, went up to $100 million for the second year, and the third year to $200 million.

How Food Stamps Really Started
A supermarket clerk stamps used food stamps on December 4, 1988, in New York City. Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images/Time.

10. Throughout The Rest Of The 1960s, The Food Stamp Program Continued To Grow

By April 1965, 561,261 people took part in the Food Stamp Program. This number continued to grow well into the 1970s. By March 1966, over one million people received food stamps. The following year this number increased to 2 million people.

By February 1969, about 3 million people received food stamps. This number jumped up to 4 million within the year. By May 1970, 6 million people received food stamps. By February 1971, 10 million people got food stamps, and this number hit 15 million by October 1974.

How Food Stamps Really Started
A shopper during the 1960s. Time.

9. The Federal Government Became Worried About The Cost Of Food Stamps During The 1970s Because Of the Growth

Both Federal and State Governments couldn’t believe the growth of the food stamp program during the 1970s. No one expected the rate to grow so fast, so politicians suddenly because worried about how much the plan started to cost.

Other than cost, the Federal Government became concerned about how this affected farmers. Another problem became the areas that didn’t have food stamps in their jurisdiction. Consumers still needed the food stamp program, but couldn’t legally receive them. However, many people tried to get around the law by lying about their addresses.

How Food Stamps Really Started
The landscape of Puerto Rico. Welcome to Puerto

8. Food Stamp Program Became Nationwide In 1974

While consumers felt that the Food Stamp Program should become nationwide as soon as the government passed the act, this wasn’t the case. In fact, it took another decade before the Food Stamp Program received nationwide status.

Over ten years, more and more states incorporated the Food Stamp Program, allowing all their counties to bring the program as part of their benefits. Puerto Rico became the last area to include the Food Stamp Program. Residents of Puerto Rico needed to wait until November 1, 1974.

How Food Stamps Really Started
A West New York, N.J. store proves they accept food stamps with the sticker.

7. The 1980s Saw Cut Backs In The Food Stamp Program

During the early 1980s, Congress realized that they couldn’t continue to see the program grow as it did because neither the Federal Government or the states could afford it. Therefore, the legislature enacted various cutbacks between 1981 and 1982.

First, the government added a gross income eligibility test for every household that applied. Next, they prohibited federal funding for outreach. Other cutbacks included annual adjustments in food stamp allotments, and Puerto Rico received a block grant for nutrition assistance instead of access to the Food Stamp Program.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Each state has their own EBT card. Hirefelons.

6. EBTs Started To Push Out Food Stamps Starting In 1988

Today, people know food stamps as EBT and receive their funds through a plastic card. But, one factor they do not know is this process started in the late 1980s. The first EBT cards came out in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1984. This became the test pilot for EBT cards.

The Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 pushed for more test pilot programs. Areas all around the United States continued to test the EBT cards instead of food stamp coupons. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 told states they all needed to start implementing EBT by October 2002.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Food Stamps are now known as SNAP. Wikimedia.

5. Technically, Food Stamps Don’t Exist Anymore

Today, food stamps are known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While the general idea for SNAP is the same as food stamps, the program focuses more on health and making sure families get healthy food over unhealthy food.

One factor that’s changed over time is that people can get food at other places than grocery stores. You can also get particular food at convenience stores and even some farmer’s markets. Instead of coupons, the money is automatically deposited on a plastic EBT card.

How Food Stamps Really Started
The government established EBT cards so people wouldn’t become embarrassed about using SNAP. Action News Now.

4. SNAP Is Deposited On An EBT Card

People receive their SNAP benefits through a plastic EBT card that looks like a regular debit or credit card. EBT stands for electronic benefit transfer, and people can’t tell if someone is using an EBT card or another card.

The main reason the American government decided to transfer SNAP benefits to a plastic debit type card is that people were embarrassed when they gave the cashier checks or coupons for food. Some people refused to take the benefit, even when they needed it, because of the embarrassment they felt.

How Food Stamps Really Started
SNAP is similar to food stamps, but the program changed over the decades.

3. How Does SNAP Work Today?

SNAP is similar and different to the original food stamps of 1939. While they both help people put food on their table, SNAP focuses more on health. With SNAP, someone will receive the benefits without taking them from someone else, which means it’s not a welfare program.

SNAP is run by the United States Department of Agriculture, except in Massachusetts. The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) overseas SNAP in Massachusetts. Once you’re approved for EBT, you will receive your card and SNAP money every month. You do not need to give anyone cash for them to put SNAP funds into your EBT card.

How Food Stamps Really Started
Millions of Americans use food stamps, which allow them to cook well-balanced meals at home. Fox Chicago.

2. SNAP Focuses More On Eating Healthy

One of the biggest changes made throughout Food Stamp history, other than the name change, is the food recipients of the program receive. When Food Stamps first started, the point was to help everyone from farmers to the consumer. Today, one of the most significant aspects of SNAP is to make sure people eat healthily.

While you can purchase unhealthy food with SNAP, there are restrictions. You are also persuaded to focus more on healthy food and ingredients that allow you to make a well-balanced meal for your family.

How Food Stamps Really Started
President Trump and the controversy of food stamps. WFAA.

1. The Use Of Food Stamps Is Still Mixed To This Day

Over the past few months, the discussion of food stamps has skyrocketed due to United States President Trump creating a new food stamp rule which cuts the benefit for many people. While some people agree with this cut, often citing that people misuse the program, other people disagree by stating it brings more people close to poverty.

No matter what side of the fence you are on, you can’t deny that the history of food stamps goes back 80 years. However, one factor that hasn’t changed is that the program started as a way to help Americans put food on the table, and this is still the point of food stamps.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“What is SNAP?” Getting Food Stamps.

“The Very Short History of Food Stamp Fraud in America.” Emelyn Rude, Time. March 2017.

“Food stamps may become like Blue Apron. In the Great Depression, they started with blue coupons.” Ian Shapira, The Washington Post. February 2018.

“History, Background, and Goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” National Academy of Sciences. 2013.

“How Did Food Stamps Begin?” Christopher Klein, History. August 2019.

“A Short History of SNAP.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. September 2018.

“Overlooked No More: Isabelle Kelley, Who Developed a Food Stamp Program to Feed Millions.” Marguerite Joutz, New York Times. January 2019.