What Did Paper Food Stamps Look Like? A Historical Overview

As we all know, food stamps are a form of government assistance that helps low-income families get access to food. But did you know that there used to be paper food stamps? Yes, you heard that right! Before the current electronic benefit transfer system (EBT) came into existence, people had to use paper food stamps to buy groceries.

So what did they look like? Well, paper food stamps were actually physical pieces of paper that came in different denominations. They were often colorful and featured images of fruits, vegetables, and other food items. These stamps were given to families in need, who could then use them to purchase food from authorized retailers. The paper food stamp system was in place for many years, but it had its challenges and limitations.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before paper food stamps, people would simply rely on cash for food. And then, when paper food stamps did arrive, it was a game changer for many low-income families. But as technology advanced, so did the need to streamline the system and address its issues. That’s where the EBT system came in, replacing the paper food stamp system and making it more efficient and easier to manage for both retailers and beneficiaries. However, the history of food stamps is still an important reminder of the struggles faced by many to access basic necessities and the constant need to improve and innovate government programs for the most vulnerable in society.

History of Food Stamps in the US

Food stamps, also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have been a crucial component of the US government’s welfare program for over 80 years. The first food stamp program in the United States was initiated in 1939 when the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation started a food distribution program to prevent waste of agricultural surplus. This program, known as the Food Distribution Program, was later replaced with the Food Stamp Program in the 1960s.

The program was designed to provide assistance to low-income families so that they could buy nutritious food. The program initially allowed participants to purchase food staples from authorized retailers using paper food coupons. These coupons were distributed by the US Department of Agriculture and had different denominations based on the financial need of the household. The program has since undergone significant changes with the aim of improving accessibility and reducing stigma.

Limits and Restrictions on Paper Food Stamps

  • The paper food stamps did not offer flexibility, and the participants had to purchase specific items only.
  • The program required that the participants provide proof of their income and assets, which limited participation for many struggling individuals.
  • Paper food stamps were easily lost or stolen, creating a burden for participants to replace them, which caused long lines and delays.

Transition to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards

In the 1980s, the government began to phase out paper food stamps and replaced them with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. These cards work like debit cards and are easier to use than paper food stamps. With EBT cards, users can use their cards to purchase approved items at authorized retailers and farmers’ markets. Fewer restrictions are put on EBT cards, allowing SNAP participants to buy a wider range of nutritious foods.

According to the USDA, the EBT program has significantly reduced administrative costs and eliminated the need for large-scale production, secure transport, and storage of paper food stamps, which had been a challenge in the past.


Overall, food stamps have been a crucial tool in the US government’s welfare program to provide crucial nutritional support to low-income families and farmers. With the transition from paper food stamps to EBT cards, the program has become more efficient and accessible to millions of Americans who need assistance. The history of food stamps in the United States is a testament to our commitment to providing everyone with access to affordable and healthy food options, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

YearProgram NameNumber of Participants
1939Food Distribution Program150,000
1964Food Stamp Act500,000
1975Food Stamp Act Amendments16 million
1996Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act27 million
2020Pandemic EBT30 million

Sources: USDA, SnapToSkills, CNBC

Introduction of Paper Food Stamps

Before the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, paper food stamps were issued to low-income families in the United States as a form of government aid. The program began in the early 1960s, during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, as a way to provide assistance for families who were struggling to put food on the table.

  • The first paper food stamps were issued in Rochester, New York in 1961. They were initially distributed as stapled booklets of different denominations.
  • During the 1970s, the program expanded, and food stamps could be found in nearly every grocery store across the country.
  • Paper food stamps were also issued with brightly colored designs or patterns to prevent fraud and counterfeiting. The designs were updated every few years to keep up with security measures.

As the program continued to expand, it became clear that paper food stamps were not a sustainable system. The process of printing and distributing paper stamps was costly and time-consuming, and there were concerns about fraud and abuse.

In the 1990s, the government began the transition to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, which are now used to distribute food assistance and other benefits in many states.

YearColor/DesignDollar Amount
1961-1964Green and white checks with perforations$1, $5, $10
1964-1968Green and white checks with wavy borders$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1968-1971Green and white with eagle and shield$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1971-1974Red, white, and blue with Independence Hall$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1974-1979Tan with grapes and cornucopia$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1979-1980Brown with farmer and tractor$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1980-1985Blue and white with leaves$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1985-1989Pink with rooster$1, $5, $10, $50, $100
1989-1991Yellow with apple$1, $5, $10, $50, $100

While paper food stamps have become obsolete, they played an important role in aiding low-income families in the United States. The program has evolved over time, but the goal of providing assistance to those in need remains a crucial part of government aid programs today.

Design of Paper Food Stamps

When paper food stamps were first introduced in 1961, they were a revolutionary way to help low-income families access food without having to carry cash. Over the years, the design of paper food stamps underwent several changes to improve usability, security, and anti-fraud measures.

  • The first paper food stamps were colored in brown, green, and blue with a simple eagle and flag design. The denominations ranged from 50 cents to $10.
  • In 1971, the design was updated to include portraits of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The denominations were also changed to be in dollar amounts only.
  • In 1977, a hologram was added to the stamps to prevent counterfeiting and fraud.

Despite these design updates, paper food stamps remained vulnerable to fraud. The stamps could be traded for cash, sold for less than their face value, and even stolen. In addition, the process of issuing and redeeming the stamps was labor-intensive and often cumbersome for both retailers and recipients.

In the 1990s, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards were introduced to replace paper food stamps. These cards use a magnetic strip or a chip to store and transfer information, making the process faster, more secure, and more convenient for everyone involved.

YearDesignDenominationsSecurity Features
1961Brown, green, and blue with eagle and flag50 cents to $10N/A
1971Portraits of historical figuresOnly dollar amountsN/A
1977HologramOnly dollar amountsAnti-counterfeiting measure

Overall, the design of paper food stamps evolved over time to better serve the needs of low-income families and prevent fraud. However, the transition to electronic benefit transfer cards represented a significant improvement in terms of security, efficiency, and convenience.

Denominations of Paper Food Stamps

During the time when paper food stamps were used, they were issued in different denominations depending on the financial needs of the recipient. The following are the denominations of paper food stamps that were available:

  • $1 food stamp
  • $5 food stamp
  • $10 food stamp

The denominations helped recipients to use the food stamp program in a flexible manner and to manage their expenses in a more effective way. For example, if a family needed less than $5 worth of food stamps, they could purchase $1 worth of food stamps rather than receiving $5 worth of food stamps that they would end up not using.

In addition, the denominations of paper food stamps helped retailers to manage their till floats and to limit their exposure to fraud. Food stamps were used as currency, and paper food stamps were particularly susceptible to counterfeiting. The smaller denominations were easier to handle and reduced the risk of fraudulent activity.

Below is a table that shows the value of paper food stamps that were issued in the 1970s:

$1 food stamp


$5 food stamp


$10 food stamp


Overall, the denominations of paper food stamps made it easier for both recipients and retailers to use the food stamp program while minimizing the risk of fraud.

Eligibility for Paper Food Stamps

Before delving into the specific details of paper food stamps, it’s important to understand who was eligible to receive them. In general, individuals or families with low income and limited resources were the primary recipients of food stamp benefits. This program was designed to help alleviate hunger and poverty among those who were struggling to put food on the table. Some of the eligibility criteria for paper food stamps included:

  • Proof of income – Applicants had to provide documentation of their income, such as pay stubs or tax returns, to determine if they met the income requirements to qualify for food stamp benefits.
  • Asset limits – In addition to examining income, the food stamp program also took into account an applicant’s assets. Those with too many assets, such as a large savings account or property, may not have been eligible for benefits.
  • Household size – The number of people in a household also played a role in determining eligibility. Larger households may have qualified for more benefits than smaller ones.

Ultimately, the goal of the food stamp program was to assist those who were struggling to afford basic necessities like food. Paper food stamps were just one way to distribute these benefits to those who needed them most.

Usage of Paper Food Stamps

Paper Food Stamps were used for over three decades in the United States to assist low-income households in purchasing food. Here’s what they looked like and how they were used.

  • Paper Food Stamps were distributed in booklets, each booklet containing a certain number of stamps with varying values.
  • Recipients would bring their food stamp booklets to the grocery store and exchange them for eligible food items.
  • The cashier would then remove the appropriate amount of stamps from the booklet and give them back as change if the total cost of the purchase was less than the value of the stamps used.

This process could be frustrating for both the recipient and the cashier, especially when there were discrepancies in the value of the stamps and the cost of the items. However, it allowed for a level of control over the purchasing of the food and helped ensure that the stamps were being used for their intended purpose.

In 2004, the government began phasing out paper Food Stamps and replacing them with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. This transition allowed for a more efficient and discreet way for recipients to access food assistance and eliminated the stigma surrounding the use of food stamps.

YearImage of Paper Food Stamps
1962-1979Paper Food Stamps from 1965
1979-1983Paper Food Stamps from 1982
1983-2004Paper Food Stamps from 2001

Now, EBT cards have become the standard method of distributing food assistance in the United States. However, it’s worth remembering the impact that Paper Food Stamps had on supporting low-income families and communities.

Distribution and Redemption of Paper Food Stamps

Before the introduction of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards for food stamp programs, paper food stamps were the primary means of distribution. The paper food stamps were distributed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and came in different denominations ranging from $1 to $10. They were typically distributed through state welfare offices or community centers. The paper food stamps were issued on a monthly basis and their value was determined by each individual’s requested benefits.

  • Eligibility: In order to receive paper food stamps, individuals had to meet certain eligibility requirements such as income and household size. Once deemed eligible, individuals would receive a monthly allotment of paper food stamps.
  • Color coding system: Each denomination of paper food stamp had a different color. For example, the $1 paper food stamp was blue and the $5 paper food stamp was pink. This color coding system was put in place to prevent fraud and abuse.
  • Redemption: Paper food stamps were redeemed at authorized retailers, such as grocery stores and supermarkets. The retailers would accept paper food stamps as payment for eligible food items. The retailers would then submit the paper food stamps to the USDA for reimbursement.

The redemption process could be time-consuming and often required additional paperwork for retailers to submit to the USDA for reimbursement. The introduction of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards in the 1990s provided a more streamlined process for distribution and redemption of food stamp benefits.

Overall, the distribution and redemption of paper food stamps required a careful system of checks and balances to ensure that the benefits were correctly distributed and used for eligible food items. Despite its limitations and potential for fraud, the paper food stamp program provided a crucial safety net for low-income individuals and families in need of food assistance.


Understanding the distribution and redemption process of paper food stamps sheds light on the history of food assistance programs in the United States and the evolution of the delivery of aid to low-income families and individuals.

Challenges Faced by the Paper Food Stamp System

While the paper food stamp system was created with the noble intent of helping low-income families meet their basic food needs, it faced several significant challenges during its implementation and use.

  • Fraud: One of the most significant challenges faced by the paper food stamp system was fraud. The paper food stamp coupons were often stolen or replicated, leading to a thriving black market in which individuals profited from reselling them for cash. This fraudulent activity left many low-income families without the food assistance they desperately needed.
  • Accessibility: Another challenge of the paper food stamp system was accessibility. Families had to physically go to a government office to obtain and use the coupons, which could be difficult for those without reliable transportation or who lived in rural areas. This created a barrier to access that left vulnerable families without adequate food assistance.
  • Dignity: The paper food stamp system was also criticized for its lack of dignity. Families were required to use the paper coupons to purchase food, which often led to stigmatization by store clerks and fellow shoppers. Many families felt shame and embarrassment when using the coupons, which could lead to them avoiding the assistance they needed.

Evolution of the Food Stamp System

Over time, the paper food stamp system was replaced by the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system, which utilizes debit cards to provide families with food assistance. This new system addressed many of the challenges faced by the paper food stamp system, including reducing fraud, improving accessibility, and preserving the dignity of low-income families.

The Importance of Food Assistance Programs

Despite the challenges faced by the paper food stamp system, it was an essential program in America’s efforts to combat food insecurity and poverty. Today, the EBT system continues to provide millions of families with the support they need to put food on the table and improve their overall health and well-being.

Paper Food Stamp SystemElectronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) System
Physical coupons that could be misused or stolenDebit cards that provide secure and confidential assistance
Required families to physically go to a government officeAllows families to access assistance from a local grocery store
Stigmatizing and lacked dignityPreserves the dignity of families who receive food assistance

As we continue to address the issues of poverty and food insecurity in our nation, it is essential to remember the challenges faced by early food assistance programs like the paper food stamp system and continue to seek out innovative solutions to ensure that all families have access to the food they need to live happy, healthy lives.

Replacement of Paper Food Stamps

As technology continued to advance, the system of distributing food stamps through paper vouchers became increasingly outdated and inefficient. In order to improve the process, the government made the decision to replace paper food stamps with an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system.

  • The first EBT implementation took place in Maryland in 1987, and by 2002, all states had made the transition to EBT.
  • With EBT, recipients are issued a plastic card that is loaded with benefits each month, and they can use this card like a debit card to purchase eligible food items at participating retailers.
  • One major advantage of EBT is the elimination of counterfeit vouchers, which were a significant problem with the paper system.

The switch to EBT has also made it easier for recipients to access their benefits and has streamlined the distribution process for government agencies. However, some advocates for low-income individuals have raised concerns about the potential for privacy violations with the electronic system.

Despite these concerns, the EBT system has proven to be a much more effective and efficient way of distributing food assistance to those in need. As technology continues to evolve, it’s likely that we will see even more improvements to the system in the years to come.

Advantages of EBTDisadvantages of EBT
Eliminates counterfeit vouchersPotential for privacy violations
Streamlines distribution processDependent on technology
Easy access to benefits for recipientsCan be confusing for some users

Ultimately, the replacement of paper food stamps with EBT has vastly improved the system for distributing food assistance to those in need, and with continued advancements in technology, the EBT system is likely to become even more efficient and effective in the years ahead.

Collectors and Memorabilia of Paper Food Stamps

While paper food stamps are no longer in use, they still hold a significant place in the history of American welfare. Many collectors and enthusiasts have turned to collecting these items as memorabilia.

Some collectors seek to obtain rare or unusual types of food stamps, such as those with misprints or unusual serial numbers. Others focus on collecting stamps from specific years or regions of the country. Some collectors even go as far as to create elaborate displays or dioramas featuring food stamps and related items.

  • Collecting food stamps is not just a hobby, but also an opportunity to learn more about the history of food assistance in the United States.
  • Some collectors donate their collections to museums or historical societies to educate others about this important aspect of American history.
  • Food stamps and other welfare-related items have also been featured in art exhibits, including works by contemporary artists and photographers who aim to shed light on issues of poverty and social inequality.

One particularly interesting aspect of collecting paper food stamps is their value as historical artifacts. The stamps represent a time when government assistance was less centralized and more localized, and they offer insights into the specific needs and resources of different regions of the country.

For those interested in adding to their collection, there are a number of specialized dealers and online marketplaces where paper food stamps can be purchased. Additionally, collectors may find it useful to network with others in the collecting community or attend trade shows and conventions to find new items for their collection.

ItemAverage Value
Unused 5 cent stamp$2 – $5
Unused 50 cent stamp$5 – $10
Unused $1 stamp$10 – $20
Unused $5 stamp$20 – $50

Whether for their historical significance or their aesthetic value, paper food stamps continue to hold a place in the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts. As a tangible reminder of a bygone era of American welfare, they offer a glimpse into an important aspect of our nation’s history.

FAQs About What Did Paper Food Stamps Look Like

1. What were paper food stamps?
Paper food stamps were physical coupons issued by the government to assist low-income families in purchasing food.

2. When were paper food stamps first introduced?
Paper food stamps were first introduced in 1939 as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp program.

3. What did paper food stamps look like?
Paper food stamps were rectangular in shape, and each denomination had a different color. They had a perforated edge that could be torn to separate them into smaller denominations.

4. How were paper food stamps distributed?
Paper food stamps were distributed to eligible individuals and families through local social service agencies. Participants would receive a booklet of coupons that were redeemable at participating grocery stores.

5. What items could be purchased with paper food stamps?
Paper food stamps could be used to purchase food items, including bread, milk, cereal, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and meat products.

6. When did paper food stamps stop being used?
Paper food stamps were replaced with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards in the early 2000s. EBT cards function like a debit card and allow participants to access their benefits electronically.

7. Are paper food stamps still valid?
No, paper food stamps are no longer valid. If you have any paper food stamp coupons, they cannot be redeemed as currency.

Closing: Thanks for Visiting

We hope this article answered your questions about what paper food stamps looked like. Though they are no longer used, they were an important part of the history of government assistance. Please feel free to visit our website again for more informative articles. Thanks for reading!