The U.S. food stamp program was launched at a time when the nation was facing a tragic paradox: As millions of Americans suffered from hunger during the Great Depression, the country’s farmers agonized under a crushing bounty. The economic collapse of the 1930s had sapped food consumers of their purchasing power, so farmers found themselves with a glut of crops and livestock. That glut, in turn, sent agricultural prices plummeting.

In order to create artificial scarcity and boost prices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially paid farmers to plow under their fields and slaughter their pigs. The destruction of food at a time when so many stomachs rumbled sparked an outcry that prompted the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC), a New Deal agency established in 1933, to instead purchase excess food and distribute it directly to the needy at little or no cost. This initiative, however, dampened business for grocers and food wholesalers, who complained of government interference and unfair competition in the marketplace.

Facing the triple problems of farm surpluses, weak sales for grocers and hungry citizens at a time of 17 percent unemployment, the FSCC hoped tiny paper squares could solve its trilemma. Rochester, New York, then became the petri dish for a new government-run economic experiment.

Food Stamps Debut in Rochester, NY

On the morning of May 16, 1939, FSCC officials watched anxiously as they opened their doors inside Rochester’s old post office to launch the country’s latest relief measure. As newspaper reporters and photographers jockeyed for position to document history in the making, the first person in line approached a cashier window. Ralston Thayer, a 35-year-old machinist who had been out of work for nearly a year, handed a clerk $4 from his latest unemployment check and received $4 of orange stamps in return as well as $2 of blue stamps for free.

The orange “food stamps” could be redeemed at any of the 1,200 participating Rochester groceries for any goods on the shelves, while blue stamps could only be used to buy surplus agricultural items such as butter, eggs, prunes, flour, oranges, cornmeal and beans. Grocers could exchange the food stamps for money at commercial banks and FSCC offices.

“I never received surplus foods before, but the procedure seems simple enough and I certainly intend to take advantage of it,” Thayer told reporters.

Throughout the day, approximately 2,000 Rochester residents followed in Thayer’s footsteps. For every $1 of orange stamps bought, they received 50 cents worth of blue stamps for free, thereby expanding their purchasing power by 50 percent. That afternoon, waves of customers poured into Rochester’s grocery stores with their crisp new booklets of orange and blue stamps in hand.

Food Stamps, 1939
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Orange and blue food stamps from 1939. For each cash dollar, an unemployed person would get $1 in orange stamps and 50 cents in blue stamps.

Food stamp recipients approved of the new program, which gave them greater choice in what to eat, beyond just the surplus items being handed out by the government. “Now we’ll get the best in food,” one woman told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “We can take our pick on these surplus commodities instead of taking what they give us.”

Rochester grocers benefited as well as recipients channeled $50,000 into their coffers during the program’s first four days. “I was cleaned out of flour when the stamp rush started,” grocer Joseph Mutolo told FSCC officials when he became the first retailer to redeem the stamps. “That certainly is different from the old days when you gave food away at the big food depot. Then, when you gave away flour or butter, I sold none. Now it seems I can’t keep stocked up.”

Building on the initial success, the food stamp program was rolled out to additional pilot cities and expanded to half the counties in the United States. Eligible Americans could buy between $1 and $1.50 in orange stamps weekly for each family member. The program fed 20 million Americans until it was discontinued in 1943 when the economic stimulus provided by World War II eased unemployment and crop surpluses.

Food Stamps Revived Under JFK, Expanded Under Nixon

President John F. Kennedy, who had been struck by the poverty he had witnessed in West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primary campaign, revived food stamps as a pilot program as one of his first actions upon taking office in 1961. 

While recipients were still required to pay for their food stamps, the special stamps for surplus goods were eliminated. The Food Stamp Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 31, 1964, codified and expanded the program. “The food stamp plan will be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty,” Johnson proclaimed at the signing ceremony.

The History of Food Stamps in the United States
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
A woman using food stamps to purchase her groceries in Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1939.

Although launched by Democratic presidents, the food stamp program saw its largest expansion under the stewardship of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in the wake of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s highly publicized trips to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, the Poor People’s Campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1968 CBS documentary “Hunger in America,” which shocked viewers with images of starving children with sunken features and bloated bellies.

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable,” Nixon asserted in a May 1969 message to Congress that expressed his determination “to put an end to hunger in America for all time.”

During the course of Nixon’s presidency, the food stamp program grew fivefold from 3 million recipients in 1969 to 15 million by 1974. “Nixon was actually very supportive of many social programs, proposing the Family Assistance Program that would have benefited the working poor and expanding Social Security. Nixon’s expansion of food stamps is in line with his larger efforts,” says Matthew Gritter, a political science professor at Angelo State University and author of the book The Policy and Politics of Food Stamps and SNAP.

The food stamp program continued to receive bipartisan support in the years that followed. Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator George McGovern spearheaded the passage of the Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977, which strengthened anti-fraud provisions and eliminated the requirement that recipients purchase food stamp coupons

Food Stamps Become Electronic, Renamed SNAP

Food Stamps SNAP Card
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A social worker with the Cooperative Feeding Program displays a federal food stamps card that is used to purchase food like a debit card.

Beginning in 1990, electronic benefit transfer cards, similar to debit cards tied to benefits accounts, replaced paper food stamps. The measure further reduced fraud, since recipients could no longer sell stamps instead of using them to purchase food. With the elimination of paper food stamps came a 2008 change in the program’s name to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Gritter says the biggest misconception about the history of the food stamp program is that it grew only with Democratic support. “Food stamps really owe a great deal to Republican presidents. George W. Bush expanded food stamps, particularly in the 2002 Farm Bill that restored eligibility for legal immigrants. Republicans like Nixon and Dole expanded the program. During the welfare reform debate of the 1990s, Republicans such as the moderate Senator Richard Lugar also stood up for food stamps.”

The SNAP program served nearly 40 million Americans in 2018, with each participant receiving an average monthly benefit of $127. Food producers and retailers also continued to benefit. For example, UBS Analyst Michael Lasser estimated that Walmart derived about 4 percent of its U.S. sales from food stamp purchases in 2018.