When Did the Food Stamp Program Begin? A Look into Its History

The origins of the food stamp program can be traced back to the late 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression. At the time, the country was grappling with a severe economic crisis that left millions of Americans unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. In response, the federal government created a number of social welfare programs, including the food stamp program, to help alleviate poverty and hunger across the nation.

The first modern food stamp program began in 1961, as part of a pilot program launched by the Kennedy administration. Originally known as the Food Distribution Program, it aimed to provide a steady supply of nutritious food to low-income Americans who were struggling to afford basic necessities like groceries. Over the next few years, the program was expanded and improved upon, eventually becoming the food stamp program we know today.

Despite some controversy over the years, the food stamp program has remained a vital lifeline for millions of people across the United States. It provides much-needed assistance to families and individuals facing economic hardship, and helps ensure that everyone has access to the nutritious food they need to thrive. As we continue to navigate the challenges of modern times, it is more important than ever to recognize and appreciate the crucial role that the food stamp program plays in our society.

History of Food Assistance in the United States

The concept of food assistance in the United States dates back to the Great Depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a food distribution program among his aid initiatives. It was a temporary program that helped people who could not afford basic necessities such as food.

The modern-day food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), began in 1961. However, it was not until 1964 that the federal government passed legislation that made the program permanent.

  • The program initially had two objectives. First, to provide assistance to low-income households and second, to increase demand for food products produced by farmers.
  • The program operated on a paper system until 2004 when digital technology replaced the paper stamps with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.
  • Currently, SNAP is a federal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which provides food assistance to low-income households through EBT cards that can be used at approved retail stores.

The Great Depression and hunger relief efforts

The Great Depression was a severe economic downturn that hit the United States from 1929 to 1939, affecting millions of people. As unemployment rates soared, many Americans struggled to put food on their tables, leading to widespread hunger and malnutrition. In response to this crisis, the government and charitable organizations initiated hunger relief efforts to provide aid to those in need.

  • The government launched the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) in 1933, which distributed agricultural surplus to those in need. However, this program was limited and only provided temporary relief.
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), launched in 1933, employed young unemployed men to carry out public works projects, including the construction of parks and trails. In exchange, they received meals, housing, and a small wage.
  • The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was launched in 1935 and provided employment to millions of people through various public works projects. These workers received wages, which enabled them to buy food and support their families.

In addition to these government initiatives, charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross also played a significant role in providing food assistance to those in need. Soup kitchens and breadlines were set up across the country to distribute free meals to the hungry.

The Great Depression and the hunger it caused highlighted the need for a more efficient and comprehensive system to provide food assistance to those in need. It was not until 1939, at the end of the Great Depression, that the government introduced a more permanent solution to this problem – the first federal food stamp program.

Overall, the hunger relief efforts during the Great Depression played a vital role in providing aid to millions of Americans in need. These initiatives were crucial in getting people through the worst period of economic downturn in American history and acted as a stepping stone towards the current food assistance programs we have in place today.

First pilot programs for food stamps in the 1930s and 1940s

In response to higher unemployment rates and widespread hunger during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government began experimenting with food assistance programs.

The first pilot program for food stamps was launched in Rochester, New York in May 1939, allowing participants to purchase orange stamps valued at $1 and blue stamps valued at 50 cents. These could then be used to purchase surplus food items at local grocery stores. The program was a success, with over 80 percent of participants reporting improved health and better overall well-being.

Following the success of the Rochester program, additional pilot programs were implemented throughout the 1940s. By 1943, several cities had implemented their own food stamp programs, including Washington D.C., Cleveland, and St. Louis.

Key features of the early food stamp programs

  • The food stamp programs were administered by state and local governments in conjunction with the federal government. This was designed to provide flexibility and ensure local needs were being addressed.
  • Participants were required to purchase the food stamps with their own funds, ensuring that the program was targeted at low-income households.
  • Participation in the program was limited to specific groups of people, including families with dependent children and elderly individuals with limited income.

The end of the pilot programs

Despite their success, many of the early food stamp programs were discontinued by the end of the 1940s due to a lack of funding. It wasn’t until the 1960s that food stamps would become a permanent part of the American social welfare system.

However, the pilot programs laid the groundwork for future food assistance programs, establishing many of the key features that are still in place today.


The first pilot programs for food stamps in the 1930s and 1940s were an important step in the evolution of the American social welfare system. They demonstrated the effectiveness of food assistance programs in combatting hunger and improving overall well-being, while also establishing many of the key features that are still in place today.

YearLocationProgram Details
1939Rochester, New YorkOrange and blue stamps for surplus food items
1941Washington D.C.Stamps for surplus farm goods
1942Cleveland, OhioStamps for surplus farm goods
1943St. Louis, MissouriStamps for surplus farm goods

Source: https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/short-history-snap

The Food Stamp Plan of 1961

The Food Stamp Plan of 1961 was one of the first comprehensive plans to address hunger and malnutrition in the United States. The program was created by the Kennedy administration as part of its “New Frontier” initiative and was designed to provide low-income households with greater access to nutritious food. The plan was initially piloted in a few select areas, including Rochester, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Montgomery County, Maryland, before being rolled out nationwide.

  • The plan provided low-income households with a monthly allotment of food coupons that could be used to purchase groceries at supermarkets and other participating stores.
  • The coupons were issued to eligible households based on their income and family size, and the amount of the monthly allotment varied depending on a household’s circumstances.
  • The goal of the program was to help low-income households purchase enough food each month to meet their basic nutritional needs.

The Food Stamp Plan of 1961 was a major step forward in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Since its inception, the food stamp program has undergone significant changes and revisions, but it remains an essential safety net for millions of Americans who struggle to put food on the table.

As of 2021, the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides assistance to more than 42 million Americans. The program has proven to be an effective tool in reducing poverty and food insecurity, and it continues to play a critical role in helping families and individuals access the basic nutrition they need to lead healthy and productive lives.

YearProgram Name
1939Food Stamps Act
1961The Food Stamp Plan
1977The Food Stamp Act
2008The Farm Bill

Overall, the Food Stamp Plan of 1961 was a landmark achievement that helped pave the way for the food stamp program as we know it today. By providing low-income households with greater access to nutritious food, the program has had a profound impact on the health and well-being of millions of Americans.

Launch of the national Food Stamp Program in 1964

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law, officially launching the national Food Stamp Program in the United States. The purpose of the program was to provide low-income households with access to more nutritious food options, reducing hunger and improving public health. The program was initially created as a pilot project in a few select states, and by 1974, it had expanded to all states in the nation.

  • The program provided eligible households with coupons or stamps that could be used to purchase food items at participating retailers.
  • The amount of benefits received by each household was based on its income level, family size, and expenses.
  • In 2008, the program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to better reflect its emphasis on providing nutritional assistance rather than just food stamps.

Since its inception, the program has undergone numerous changes and adjustments, including revisions to eligibility criteria, benefit levels, and distribution methods. However, the core mission of the program remains the same: to provide access to nutritious food for low-income households and alleviate hunger in the United States.

Through its various iterations, the program has helped millions of Americans afford basic necessities and has played a crucial role in reducing poverty and malnutrition in the United States.

YearNumber of households participating in the Food Stamp Program (millions)

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service

Changes to the program during the Nixon Administration

President Richard Nixon’s administration brought significant changes to the food stamp program. In 1971, the program’s name was changed from the Food Stamp Act of 1964 to the Food and Nutrition Act of 1971. The primary goal of the changes was to shift the focus from providing assistance to distributing benefits in a way that would promote self-sufficiency and improve the nutritional health of low-income households.

The Nixon administration also implemented several other changes to the program, including:

  • Income eligibility standards were simplified, and the asset test was eliminated in 1975, making it easier for low-income families to qualify for benefits.
  • The program’s monthly allotments were increased to account for rising food costs and inflation.
  • The purchase requirement was eliminated, meaning that participants no longer had to pay for any portion of their monthly benefits.

One of the most significant changes made during the Nixon administration was the introduction of the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system in the early 1970s. The EBT system replaced physical food stamp coupons with a debit-card-like system that electronically transferred benefits to participants, making the distribution of benefits more efficient and secure.

Changes MadeBenefits
Elimination of asset testEasier eligibility for low-income families
Increased monthly allotmentsBetter accounting for rising food costs and inflation
Elimination of purchase requirementMore financial assistance for participants
Introduction of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT)Efficient and secure distribution of benefits

Overall, the Nixon administration’s changes to the food stamp program represented a significant shift towards improving the nutritional health of low-income households and promoting self-sufficiency among program participants.

Expansion of SNAP benefits during the 2008 recession

Due to the financial crisis in 2008, the number of Americans living in poverty increased to record levels. In response, the federal government expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to provide greater assistance to those in need.

One of the major ways that SNAP was expanded during this time was by increasing the maximum benefit amount per household. This was done in order to help families who were struggling to make ends meet during the recession. In addition, eligibility requirements for the program were also loosened in order to allow more people to qualify for assistance.

  • Increased maximum benefit amount per household
  • Loosened eligibility requirements
  • Broadened availability of benefits for children and seniors

The expansion of SNAP benefits during the 2008 recession had a significant impact on millions of Americans. In fact, it is estimated that the program provided assistance to more than 47 million people in 2014 alone.

Below is a table outlining the increase in maximum benefit amounts during the recession:

YearMaximum Benefit Amount for Household of Four

It is clear that the expansion of SNAP benefits during the 2008 recession provided much-needed assistance to millions of Americans. As we continue to face economic uncertainty, it is critical that we continue to support programs like SNAP that help ensure that everyone has access to basic necessities such as food.

Current Eligibility Requirements for SNAP Benefits

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, was created in 1964 as a way to help low-income families access nutritious food. Today, it is the largest nutrition assistance program in the United States, providing benefits to millions of eligible individuals and families each month. To receive SNAP benefits, there are certain eligibility requirements that must be met.

  • Income: The first requirement for SNAP eligibility is based on income. Applicants must have a gross monthly income that is at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this means a gross monthly income of $2,790 or less (as of 2021).
  • Assets: There is also a limit on the amount of assets that an applicant can have to be eligible for SNAP benefits. Most households must have assets of $2,250 or less, while households with a member who is elderly or disabled may have up to $3,500 in assets.
  • Citizenship: Only U.S. citizens and certain legal immigrants are eligible for SNAP benefits. Individuals must provide proof of citizenship or immigration status in order to receive benefits.

In addition to these basic eligibility requirements, there are also specific rules regarding employment and deductions that have an impact on whether an individual or family is eligible for SNAP benefits.

It is important to note that receiving SNAP benefits is not a guarantee, as the eligibility requirements are just the beginning of the application process. Applicants must also provide detailed information about income, expenses, and household members, and may need to attend an interview with a caseworker to verify their eligibility. However, for those who are eligible, SNAP benefits can make a significant difference in their ability to access nutritious food and maintain a healthy diet.


The current eligibility requirements for SNAP benefits are designed to help low-income families and individuals access the food they need to maintain a healthy diet. By setting income and asset limits, as well as specific rules regarding citizenship and employment, SNAP aims to provide assistance to those who need it most. If you think you may be eligible for SNAP benefits, it is important to research the requirements and apply as soon as possible.

Income Limits for SNAP Benefits in 2021
Household SizeMaximum Gross Monthly Income

Note: These income limits are based on 130% of the federal poverty level and may change each year. Check with your state’s SNAP program for the most current information.

Controversies surrounding the SNAP program, including fraud and waste

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, has been a crucial lifeline for millions of low-income families in the United States since its inception. However, the program has also been the subject of numerous controversies, including allegations of fraud and waste. These issues have led some to question the effectiveness of SNAP and whether it is the best way to address food insecurity in the country.

  • Fraud: One of the most common criticisms of SNAP is that it is plagued by fraud. Critics claim that the program is rife with abuse, with some individuals using their benefits to purchase luxury items like lobster and filet mignon. However, research has shown that instances of fraud are relatively rare, with the vast majority of recipients using their benefits to purchase basic necessities like fruits, vegetables, and bread. Additionally, the government has implemented a number of measures to combat fraud, such as stricter eligibility requirements and increased penalties for those who abuse the system.
  • Waste: Another common criticism of SNAP is that it leads to waste. Critics claim that the program encourages individuals to purchase more food than they need, leading to excess spoilage and waste. However, research has shown that this claim is largely unfounded. In fact, studies have found that SNAP recipients actually consume less food than non-recipients, suggesting that the program may actually help reduce waste by ensuring that individuals have access to enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.
  • Administrative Costs: Some critics of SNAP have argued that the program is too expensive to administer, with administrative costs accounting for a significant portion of the program’s budget. However, research has shown that the administrative costs of SNAP are relatively low, with the majority of the program’s budget going directly to food assistance. Additionally, the program has been shown to stimulate the local economy by providing a boost to retailers who accept SNAP benefits.

Despite these controversies, SNAP remains a critical program for millions of Americans living in poverty. While there may be room for improvement, the program has shown to be an effective way to address food insecurity in the country, providing much-needed support to those who need it most.

“SNAP (FOOD STAMPS): Myths and Realities.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, CBPP, Sep. 2021, www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snap-myths-and-realities.
“SNAP Benefits Improve Children’s Health, School Attendance, and Academic Performance.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, CBPP, 29 May 2019, www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snap-benefits-improve-childrens-health-school-attendance-and-academic.{}

Proposed changes to the program under the Trump Administration

The food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has been under scrutiny by the Trump administration. The proposed changes aim to reduce the number of people who rely on SNAP and cut program costs. Below are some of the proposed changes:

  • Work Requirements: The Trump administration is pushing work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who receive SNAP benefits. Under the current law, able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who don’t have dependents can only receive SNAP benefits for three months within a three-year period unless they work or participate in a training program for at least 20 hours a week. The Trump administration wants to expand this work requirement to apply to all adults receiving SNAP benefits.
  • Restricting Eligibility: The Trump administration has proposed to change the income and asset requirements for SNAP eligibility. Currently, families can qualify for SNAP if their household income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. This change would limit the eligibility based on income and assets, which could make it harder for some families to qualify for SNAP.
  • Boxed Food Delivery: The Trump administration has also proposed to replace a portion of SNAP benefits with a pre-packaged “America’s Harvest Box” of canned goods and other non-perishable food items for low-income households. This change would affect about 38 million people who rely on SNAP, and critics argue that this could be more expensive and less efficient than the current system.

Overall, these proposed changes are controversial and could impact the lives of millions of Americans. While the government aims to reduce the cost of the SNAP program, it’s important to consider the effects on those who rely on SNAP benefits for food security.

When Did the Food Stamp Program Begin?

Q: What inspired the creation of the food stamp program?
A: The food stamp program was created in the United States in response to the widespread hunger and poverty experienced by Americans during the Great Depression.

Q: When was the food stamp program first established?
A: The food stamp program was first established in 1939, but it only served a limited number of people and was discontinued during World War II.

Q: When did the modern food stamp program begin?
A: The modern food stamp program began in 1961 as a pilot project, but it wasn’t until 1964 that it became a permanent federal program.

Q: Who is eligible for food stamps?
A: Eligibility for food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is based on income and household size. Generally, households with incomes below 130% of the poverty line are eligible.

Q: How has the food stamp program changed over time?
A: The food stamp program has undergone many changes over time, including the transition from physical stamps to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, as well as changes to eligibility requirements and benefit levels.

Q: How many people receive food stamp benefits today?
A: As of 2021, over 38 million individuals in the United States receive food stamp benefits.

Q: What impact has the food stamp program had?
A: The food stamp program has had a significant impact on reducing food insecurity and poverty in the United States, according to numerous studies. It has also been shown to have positive effects on health outcomes for participants.

Thanks for Learning About the History of the Food Stamp Program

We hope this article has provided some insights into the origins and evolution of this important federal program. Remember to check back for more updates and informative content about relevant topics. Thanks for reading!