The first food stamp program (FSP), sometimes called the New Deal Food Stamp Program, began in 1939 and was carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture. It was initiated as a response to the Great Depression, after the failure of commodity distribution programs, and as a way to reduce the farm surplus. There was not much opportunity to export these surplus goods since the potential markets were under threat of war. The first stamps to enter the program, which were colored yellow and blue, were printed on April 20, 1939, at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Commodity distribution programs, otherwise known as “food lines” had been criticized for years prior to the first food stamp program, yet others have been carried out since. There were only a limited number of foods chosen for distribution, and the nutritional adequacy of these foods was doubtful. However, there were limits to the variety of foods that could be chosen for economic reasons. Foods like lard, rice, flour, butter, and cheese were typical. Food producers were not very fond of the programs either since the prices paid by the government were low, the and orders came in at odd times, putting a strain on companies. Grocers, of course, felt they lost business to the government.
Another criticism was the stigmatizing nature of having to stand in food lines. Although food stamps are a bit more discrete, it is difficult to say that they have been less socially stigmatizing than food relief distribution programs.
Under the first FSP, low-income or no-income families on financial relief programs were required to buy yellow (some sources say orange, so the color may have been somewhere in between) coupons. For each dollar’s worth of yellow coupons a person purchased, they were given 50 cents worth of blue coupons. In effect, this meant that every dollar was good for $1.50 worth of food. However, the blue stamps could only be used to purchase certain foods designated by the secretary of Agriculture. Initially, these foods were butter, eggs, flour, cornmeal, oranges, grapefruit, prunes, and dried beans.
The program proved popular with its recipients and with grocers, although it was not without accusations of cheating by both parties. Unlike today’s programs, the majority of Americans polled at the time approved of the FSP. The first program, however, only lasted until 1943 during World War II.
At the beginning of the war, the program actually expanded, and more types of foods were made available with blue stamps. This was because as the war went on, more and more export markets collapsed, leading to more food surpluses. After the U.S. entered the war on December 8, 1941, the surpluses dried up, and became shortages. Even before the program ended, rising prices made it difficult for low-income families to eat. On December of 1942, the Secretary of Agriculture, Claude Wickard, announced that the program would end in the spring of 1943.
The rationale for ending the program reveals a fact that the majority of the American public is unaware of. The first food stamp program was primarily intended to help deal with the surplus of agricultural commodities. When there was not longer a surplus, there was no longer thought to be any rationale for such a program. The second reason stated was because widespread unemployment was no longer a problem. Although employment may have been up, hunger was still a problem. After the program ended, as the war went on, commodity distribution programs continued, but were quite inadequate.
During the following years, there were many attempts to bring back a food stamp program, but these efforts were opposed by Southern Democrats who had control of the House Agriculture Committee. Any such program, including commodity distribution, was seen as a threat to Southern farmers, who did not like the idea of their labor force having independent purchasing power. They depended on their control of a very poor and largely black laborers. Republicans representing Midwestern agricultural areas had similar concerns. Both these groups often opposed any expansion of welfare programs.
The next food stamp program was not begun until 1961. This program, called the Pilot Food Stamp Program, was initiated by President John F. Kennedy. The first program, in contrast, was begun without any involvement of the executive or legislative branches, but was moved into action solely by the USDA, under preexisting statutes.
The Pilot Food Stamp Program lasted until 1964, when the Food Stamp Act was passed. This initiated a system of food stamps that remained in place until 2008, when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) began in 2008. The SNAP system did away with the color-coded coupons of the past and allowed recipients to use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, a measure that was vetoed by President George W. Bush, but was enacted over his veto on June 18, 2008. The new EBT system did not have a minimum dollar purchase amount like food stamps of the past. The cards, which word much like a debit card, helped prevent fraud, were more secure, and better protected the privacy of recipients.