50th Anniversary of First Food Stamp Act

by Owen Wise-Pierik

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Food Stamp Act by President Johnson. It became a federal program after successful pilot tests were launched in key parts of the U.S. between 1961 and 1964.

Since then, the program has helped millions of Americans put food on their tables and resulted in one of the most effective safety net programs the U.S. has seen.

At its inception, The Food Stamp Act was both a piece of the era’s war on poverty and a move to profitably distribute surplus from the agriculture sector, boosting its contribution to the economy.

Upon its passage in 1964, President Johnson called food stamps “one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty,” and stated that the act “weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system.”

In its initial stage, it looked a lot different than it does today. Recipients had to use actual paper stamps, paying up front for coupons that were worth more in food than they were in the dollar amount.

Unfortunately, many families couldn’t afford to buy the coupons and the program was out of reach to them. In the first few years, only a fraction of those eligible for food stamps participated.

In 1968, CBS aired the documentary “Hunger in America.” The film shocked America when it appeared on television, showing the severe poverty and hunger many people in the country assumed couldn’t exist in a land of such prosperity.

Along with many viewers, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) was upset to see such desperation in our country. As he recounts, the very next day, he proposed to the Senate that they form a commision to specifically deal with hunger.

In 1977, in a bipartisan effort, Senator McGovern and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) led the passage of legislation to increase the Food Stamp Program’s efficiency. One major change was the elimination of the purchasing requirement, making the food stamp program far more accessible for low income American families.

We now know the food stamp program as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which no longer uses paper stamps. Instead, benefits are electronically transferred to an EBT card, which looks like a debit card, so that recipients can discreetly pay for food.

Today more than 46 million people nationwide, and one in five Oregonians, benefit from the SNAP program.

It has allowed families to have better access to nutritious meals, making our communities healthier and our children ready to learn. It’s helped stabilize the budget of its recipients, so they don’t have to choose between food and utility bills or medicine.

SNAP also boosts local economies, bringing in over $1 billion to Oregon every year, supporting local farms, grocers, and their employees.

In honor of its 50th anniversary, let’s not just remember the success of The Food Stamp Act in numbers, but in the experience of its recipients.

For people all around Oregon (people like me!), SNAP is a vital addition to personal income. With a rising cost of living and a dwindling middle class, a lot of us know that getting by isn’t always easy, but SNAP can make it possible.