Food stamps to SNAP

This historical summary reviews the changes that have taken place for the federal food stamp program and discusses how it is used today.

Most Americans are familiar with the phrase “food stamps”. But many may be unfamiliar with the history of food stamps, now known as SNAP, or what this federal food assistance program looks like today.

In fact, the history of food stamps reaches back over 75 years to 1939, when the “Food Stamps Plan” was implemented. In order to support farmers who were struggling with plummeting crop values, the federal government purchased surplus farm commodities. These commodities were then made available to low-income individuals who were able to acquire the goods using their food stamps.

The system worked like this: Program participants would estimate their monthly grocery store expenses and then purchase booklets of orange stamps, matching their estimated amount. For every $1.00 of orange stamps purchased, a participant was also given $.50 worth of blue stamps. The orange stamps were used to buy food and household items while the blue stamps could only be used to purchase the surplus food designated by the government. The program was viewed as a win-win for both farmers and participants and in its’ first four years, approximately 20 million Americans participated.

The Food Stamps Plan has undergone many changes over the years including the elimination of actual stamps, the elimination of “surplus” food requirements, the addition of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, and a name change. In 2008, the program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a greater emphasis was placed on nutrition education (SNAP-ED).

Today, the SNAP program reaches over 45 million participants directly, as well as many more Americans indirectly. Research has shown that SNAP dollars are one of the best forms of economic stimulus. Every $1 of SNAP generates up to $1.73 in economic activity. Nationwide, one out of every seven Americans participates in SNAP, making it the largest federal food assistance program in the country. In fact, one half of all adults will receive SNAP benefits at some point in their lives, after the age of 20.

The introduction of the EBT card greatly streamlined SNAP transactions. Participants’ benefits are electronically loaded onto their EBT card, which is swiped at grocery stores or participating farmers markets just like a debit card. SNAP benefits can be used to purchase food including: bread, cereal, fruits & vegetables, meat and dairy products; as well as seeds and food-producing plants. SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, household/hygiene supplies, medicine or hot foods.

In Michigan, Health and Nutrition staff at Michigan State University Extension provide nutrition education for SNAP recipients throughout the state. People that qualify and are interested in attending a class can call their county MSU Extension office to ask about upcoming classes. If you think you may be eligible for SNAP benefits, you can find a pre-screening tool online.

To find a grocery store or farmers market near you that accepts SNAP, visit the USDA website or the Michigan Farmers Market Association website.

To connect with a Michigan State University Extension staff member in your area, visit the find the expert section or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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