Health and Wellness
Don’t Eat That, Eat This: The Troubled History of Food Stamps and Nutrition

Don’t Eat That, Eat This: The Troubled History of Food Stamps and Nutrition

Lately, it seems like everywhere I turn I see discussions about how poor people use their money, how they should use their money better, and how we can force their hands to change those spending habits. In an attempt to crack down on welfare use, Missouri Republican Rock Brattin recently proposed that we “get the food stamp program back to its original intent, which is nutrition assistance.” His proposal focused on claims that welfare clients use their benefits to buy luxury foods rather than nutritional staples. Welfare abuse is rife, he implied.

This parade of complaints and criticisms of low income Americans’ diets occurs like clockwork every April. Americans file their taxes, often paying what can feel like enormous portions of their income into the mysterious coffers of the federal government. Ticked off about this taxation, we often seek a scapegoat. Where does all that hard earned money go? Welfare recipients, we are told, are abusing the system. Even more often, we are told welfare clients are lazy, unemployed, and mooching off the system.

With no clarity about what exactly you are purchasing with your taxes, many feel like they are being forced to donate funds. Moreover, information about how social welfare fits into the federal budget is often intentionally misleading. When taken together, it is not at all surprising that many Americans think they overpay in taxes primarily to support poor Americans — despite how far this is from the reality.

Grocery store candy bar display and SNAP sign
Relief recipients often face public criticism of their behavior that others would balk at. (ajmexico/Flickr | CC BY)

In the last decade, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has become the main face of welfare abuse, if only because it is the largest program still intact. Liberals and conservatives united to slash federally-funded cash welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) in 1996, based on some of these same ideas of untrustworthy poor people. While food welfare, as “in kind” relief, was supposed to mean less criticism, the fact that SNAP is now one of the only direct assistance programs left makes it a primary target. Now, in a scramble to score political points, we have a Missouri proposal to ban cookies, chips, energy drinks, and steak and a Maine proposal to ban candy, soda, and bottled water.

We are at an interesting moment here, as the intersection of anxiety about obesity and anxiety about the behavior of the poor have been collapsed into one justification for such bans. It is for their own good, their own moral and nutritional good, these lawmakers argue. The Maine proposal, for instance, is justified on fears of diabetes and heart disease among low-income Americans. This does not explain the banning of bottled water and vitamins in the proposal, though. Those restrictions are about spending morally. Likewise, the Missouri proposal is supposed to be about nutrition and has received support for potentially reducing obesity — even as it cuts seafood and lean meats, which the USDA itself labels healthy. The slippage is clear. Sometimes food bans are supposed to encourage “healthy” eating, but the reasons for enacting them are often not really about health at all.

The muddled intent of this welfare program is nothing new. Ambiguity about what the program is really supposed to do is there from the start, in the Food Stamp Act of 1964. The legislation made food stamps, which had previously been run as temporary (1939-1943) and pilot (1961-1964) programs into a permanent social welfare program. The 1964 program worked quite differently than current food stamps, which are provided as social welfare (for no cost). With the 1964 program, low-income American families could purchase food stamps, and receive “bonus” stamps good for all food except alcohol, tobacco, and imported food. The bonus stamps structure was designed as an agricultural price support.

President Johnson signing 1964 Food Stamp Act
President Lyndon Johnson signing the Food Stamp Act of 1964. (US Department of Agriculture/Flickr CC BY)

The Food Stamp Act of 1964 begins from the premise that food stamps will improve nutrition. The words “nutrition” and “nutritionally adequate” were thrown around a bit in the early legislation. This is a far cry from the idea that nutritional assistance was the original intent of the program, though.

Discussions of the Food Stamp Act back in 1964 had plenty of language about nutrition. Food stamps would “safeguard the health and well-being” of Americans and “raise levels of nutrition among economically needy households,” according to one draft of the legislation.1 They would also, though, “strengthen our agricultural economy.” The Secretary of Agriculture in 1964, Orville Freeman, insisted that “our farmers should have access to the full potential of our domestic market for food.”2 The agricultural and commercial interests of the food stamp program consistently outvoted any element interested mainly in nutrition.

For instance, while some congressmen (especially in the House) debating food stamps wanted to exclude luxury foods in the 1964 act, others argued against it. They did not say this was because policing the morality of purchases was problematic, but only that it would be inconvenient for grocers to perform such policing. Others pointed out that creating a list of “luxury” foods would displease some food manufacturers. This rings true today, as well — while Maine might be up for banning soda on SNAP, it is hard to imagine state interest groups would okay such a ban on seafood. Likewise, while Missouri is interested in banning “steak” (a term that technically refers to a variety of cuts of beef), it is unlikely that states with top cattle industries would agree to this. Agricultural and industrial needs shaped, and continue to shape, what we will call “nutritious” in legislation.

Similarly, the 1964 act included a provision banning imported and foreign foods from the program. “Expenditures for imported beef, bananas, coffee, and tea, for example, are going to have very little beneficial effects on U.S. farmers,” explained one critic.3 The question was not one of nutrition. Indeed, congressional representatives continued debating the question of foreign foods from all angles. Since the proposed law only excluded imported food when labeled as such (a measure of practicality for grocers administering the program), one Republican from Iowa grilled the committee chairman on all the loopholes that might hurt domestic industry. “In other words … it can import kangaroo meat and the participants under this program can eat it?,” he queried. “That is just lovely” the congressman noted sarcastically.4 Meanwhile, a North Dakota representative complained that the bill did not support farmers nearly enough and should be moved from the USDA to Health, Education, and Welfare.5 His complaint had no traction; this was an agricultural law.

First printing of food stamps - 1939
Food stamps introduced in 1939, described as “the latest in the administration’s plans to reduce the farm surplus,” 1939. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

Does it matter if nutrition was never the intent of food stamps? Recognizing the messier policy history of the Food Stamp Program encourages us to think harder about the purposes and justifications of social welfare programs. The original intent of food stamps is so rooted in a historical moment that it is a strange claim for either advocates or opponents of food welfare to use. Does that undermine, though, the idea that nutrition can be a valuable intention of SNAP today?

Well, yes and no. It does not mean SNAP cannot and does not bring nutrition to its clients. In fact, there is strong evidence that the program as it currently exists does nutritional good.

That said, it should also remind us to tread carefully around claims of such original intent. The problem is not simply that we might totally misunderstand the original intent of legislation, as the Missouri lawmaker did. The problem is that claims that nutritional assistance was an original intent were as disingenuous in 1964 as they are in this 2015 legislation.

Further Reading

Feingold, Kenneth. 1988. Agriculture and the Politics of U.S. Social Provision: Social Insurance and Food Stamps. In The Politics of Social Policy in the United States. Ed. Margaret Weir, Ann Shola Orloff, and Theda Skocpol. Princeton: Princeton Paperbacks. 199-234.

Levine, Susan. 2008. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Poppendieck, Janet. 1986. Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression. New Brunswick: Rutgers.

Sheingate, Adam D. 2000. The Rise of an Agricultural Welfare State: Institutions and Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan. Princeton: Princeton UP.


  1. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Food Stamp Act of 1964: Hearings before the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, 88th Congress, 2nd Sess., 1. Return to text.
  2. Ibid 8-9. Return to text.
  3. U.S. Congress, Rep. Harold Cooley, Committee on Agriculture, Report Together with Minority Views and Separate Views to Accompany HR 10222, 88th Congress, 2nd Sess., Committee Print 20. Return to text.
  4. Rep. H.R. Gross, speaking on HR 10222, on April 8, 1964, 88th Congress, 2nd Sess., Congressional Record: H 7279. Return to text.
  5. Rep. Mark Andrews, speaking on HR 10222, on April 8, 1964, 88th Congress, 2nd Sess., Congressional Record: H 7283. Return to text.

Rachel Louise Moran is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Texas. She is the author of Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique (Penn 2018) and Blue: A History of Postpartum Depression in America (Chicago 2024). She works on politics, gender, and health in 20th century America.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Eat That, Eat This: The Troubled History of Food Stamps and Nutrition

    • Author gravatar

      I remember my grandmother showing us the enormous, 5-pound blocks of cheap, moldy cheese that she got from Ag Department surplus because she was a low-income senior. Really depressing.

      If people are really worried about how SNAP is being spent, we could start by eliminating food deserts, i.e., making sure all neighborhoods have healthy, fresh groceries within reach. And that people have access to housing with reasonable cooking facilities and refrigeration. And, to take it up a notch, make SNAP usable at farmers’ markets. I know that for myself, shopping for my family, I first need places where healthy food is available, and then even better is places where the junk food my kids and I have trouble resisting isn’t shoved in our faces on every end display and checkout stand.

    • Author gravatar

      Thanks for your comment! I agree, especially about the depressing nature of commodity/surplus foods.

      I did want to say that SNAP use at farmers markets *is* on the rise. But, b/c of the convoluted administration of social welfare, EACH interested farmers market must get permission to participate, and also have wireless access so they can accept SNAP cards (EBT), and then have card sliding equipment (credit card readers that attach to phones won’t work). THEN the market needs to develop an internal system of converting EBT money into some kind of market specific “scrip” or tokens. Then all the farmers market stall workers must be trained in SNAP rules and scrip use, and ultimately trade any scrip they get for actual money so they get paid. There have been federal grants to help wire/equip markets, but they are ALSO complicated – your market would need a policy wonk on hand to get through the application IMO. I have seen it work, and there really has been a push toward this from farmer, consumer, and feds in the last couple years. Progress-ish! The set up is enough to make your head spin, though.

      Info on SNAP at farmers markets/list of markets accepting SNAP —

      • Author gravatar

        Wow, it’s too bad it’s that hard to integrate farmers’ markets. I doubt my local market would ever manage it. Thanks for the detailed explanation, though.

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