History of Food Stamps and SNAP

The original "Food Stamp Plan"

First printing of food stamps. Washington, D.C., April 20, 1939First printing of food stamps. Washington, D.C., April 20, 1939. Credit: LOC, LC-DIG-hec-26519
First food stamp. Washington, D.C., April 20, 1939.First food stamp. Washington, D.C., April 20, 1939. Credit: LOC, LC-DIG-hec-26518

September 2007 marked the 30-year anniversary of the Food Stamp Program, the largest and most comprehensive nutrition program in America. Yet many people don't know that Portland, Oregon was an original pilot site for a project called the “Food Stamp Plan” that preceded the current program. The pilot operated from 1939-1943, and was seen as an innovative way to respond to severe hunger caused by the Depression while also supporting farmers.

Portland area residents who were "on relief" purchased booklets of orange colored stamps at a value equal to what they normally spent on food each month, or at least $4 per month, per family member. Orange stamps could purchase "any food usually sold in a grocery store," as well as "household articles usually bought in grocery stores, such as starch, soap, matches, etc," but could not purchase alcohol, tobacco or food eaten at stores (USDA, 1939).

For every $1 in orange stamps purchased, 50 additional cents of blue stamps were received. Blue stamps could only purchase commodity surplus foods. Grocers posted lists of the allowed surplus foods, adding fresh vegetables as they came into season.

From Pilot Project to Nationwide Program

The program was revived in the early 1960's, and received national attention after CBS aired a documentary in 1968 called Hunger in America, which showed children dying of severe malnutrition many years after the Depression, and shocked the nation into expanding food stamps as part of the War on Poverty. In 1977, U.S. Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern created the program as we know it today, through landmark legislation that expanded participation and eliminated the process of purchasing food stamps.

Food Stamp Program renamed SNAP

As part of the "Farm Bill" changes made in October of 2008, the name of the program nationally was changed to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The new name represents the program's focus on nutrition and putting healthy food within reach for low income Oregonians.

The Impact of SNAP

The program has been a tremendous success in reducing childhood hunger and malnutrition. Currently, more than 26 million Americans, including over 500,000 Oregonians, receive SNAP dollars each month. Over 80% of benefits go to households with children. Paper "stamps" have been replaced by EBT debit cards, which are very efficient and have contributed to the highest accuracy rate in the history of the program.

SNAP food dollars create a positive ripple effect in society, and are as essential today as they were when the program began. Families, seniors, disabled people and hard-working Oregonians are able to get the support they need to stay in school, keep their jobs or simply survive.