The nation’s first food stamps came off the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in  1939 in Washington. The orange and blue coupons were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to reduce the farm surplus and feed the hungry. (Library of Congress)

On a spring morning nearly 80 years ago, Ralston Thayer, an unemployed machinist, queued up inside the old post office building in Rochester, New York, for the nation’s inaugural batch of food stamps. The World War I veteran was first in line on May 16, 1939, and would soon become the nation’s first-ever food stamp recipient, according to news stories at the time.

“He was besieged by reporters and photographers, but never quailed,” wrote the New York Times.

Thayer told the journalists: “I never got surplus foods before, but I certainly will now. The plan seems simple enough.”

Of course, the plan for food stamps, created during the Great Depression, would become far more complicated and politically divisive in the decades that followed.

This week the Trump administration proposed slashing the food stamp program that more than 41 million Americans rely on by $17 billion in 2019 and by more than $213 billion over the next 10 years.

For decades, beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have received their benefits in the form of paper coupons or electronic benefit-transfer cards. Now Trump wants to give the vast majority of eligible recipients about half of their benefits in what it calls “America’s Harvest Box” — a container of nonperishable food items such as milk, juice, grains, pasta, canned meat, fruits and vegetables.

The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, described the plan as a “Blue Apron-type program,” referring to the high-end meal delivery kit. His comparison enraged welfare critics and other administration critics who worry that people under the initiative will no longer enjoy the same degree of choice in what they eat.

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The idea for food stamps was borne out of economic necessity and a tragic paradox during the Great Depression. People were going hungry, yet farms across the country were producing massive surpluses. This agricultural overabundance reduced food prices and tore into farm incomes.

The amount of extra food — combined with a hunger crisis — created a public-relations nightmare for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, according to Janet Poppendieck, a senior faculty fellow at CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute. At one point, the surplus of pork became so huge that millions of pigs had to be slaughtered, further outraging the public, a controversy Poppendieck examined at length in her book, “Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.”

Initially, the federal government responded by purchasing the extra food and distributing it to institutions such as the Red Cross or welfare departments. Finally, by the late 1930s, the Agriculture Department came up with the food stamp program. The way it worked was fairly simple: For every dollar worth of orange stamps, recipients would receive free of charge 50 cents worth of blue stamps. The blue stamps could only be used for items designated as surplus — typically, eggs, butter, beans and citrus fruits.

Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace, with food stamp coupon books printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1939. (Rothstein/USDA)

When the plan became public in March 1939, a Washington Post reporter did not restrain himself in his news article:

The purpose of the plan is simple. It’s to get rid of certain surplus farm products by eating them. Millions of American citizens need to eat better. So long as this is the fact, crop curtailment is repugnant in principle. The dumping abroad of food which our own people want and need is not much less repugnant.

The nation rolled out the food stamp initiative in six cities, starting with Rochester. The program was killed in 1943 because it was no longer considered necessary. By then, it had helped feed about 20 million people at a cost of $262 million, according to a USDA history.

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The program was revived in 1961 during the Kennedy administration. Eventually, food stamps became free to qualified households in the 1970s. In 2008, owing to the stigma surrounding the phrase “food stamp,” Congress renamed the program SNAP.

One intriguing quirk of history persists. The USDA’s website declares the nation’s first food stamp recipient was not Ralston Thayer but a woman named Mabel McFiggin. In its coverage that day in 1939 from Rochester, where more than 2,200 people bought stamps, the Times reporter noted that McFiggin was actually the first woman to buy food stamps. Her mother, the article noted, had died three years earlier and McFiggin has since been “on relief.” McFiggin once worked in a button factory, but hadn’t worked in six years. The article ended an optimistic note: “Somewhat abashed, Miss McFiggin said government officials had been ‘very nice’ to her.’ ”

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