Smithsonian Acquires Historic Food Coupons from USDA

January 20, 2010
At a special presentation today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired Food Stamp Program coupons and other related materials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, the cornerstone of U.S. food assistance programs designed to ensure that low-income citizens can obtain a nutritious diet. In October 2008, Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to emphasize the program’s focus on nutrition.

This acquisition showcases nearly 40 years of significant program changes, from paper coupons to today’s Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which have been issued nationally since 2004. The donation includes individual food coupons, booklets, proof sheets, early artist designs, printer’s plates and sample EBT cards.

The rare materials will be part of the National Numismatic Collection housed at the museum, which consists of more than 1.5 million objects, including coins, medals and paper currency and preserves the role of money in economic history. The collection’s highlights include a Colonial Massachusetts shilling from 1690—the first paper money in the Western hemisphere—the unique 1849 $20 gold coin as well as nontraditional currency and medals. The NNC’s collection includes the history of the early FSP that began with the 1935 Agricultural Adjustment Act and lasted until 1943, as well as other forms of emergency currency, such as clamshells used by Americans during the Great Depression. With the new acquisition, the museum now holds the single most comprehensive research collection pertaining to food coupons.

“The inclusion of the Food Stamp Program in the National Numismatic Collection is especially significant considering the current economic hardships facing Americans today,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “Millions of Americans have relied on these coupons to sustain themselves and their families, and the museum is proud to join with the USDA to document this important program.”

“It is important to preserve the history of this program and recognize its continued benefits to communities across the country,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “There has never been a time in history when SNAP has been more critical to our nation since it puts healthy food in reach for millions of individuals, children and families.”

While billions of food coupons have been distributed by the USDA since the beginning of the program, only a small sample has survived, due to the practice of the coupons being destroyed at a Federal Reserve Bank once they were redeemed by grocers. By law, food stamp coupons were de-obligated June 17, 2009, and are no longer legal tender.

SNAP began as a pilot program in the 1960s under President John F. Kennedy. Today SNAP has the highest participation in the program’s history, serving nearly 38 million people, half of whom are children. While feeding low-income Americans across the country, the program also helps stimulate the economy. Every $5 in new SNAP benefits equals $9.20 in local economic activity. SNAP is the largest of the FNS’s 15 nutrition assistance programs that touch the lives of one in five Americans each year and work in concert to form a national safety net against hunger. For more information about FNS visit www.fns.usda.gov.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. After a two-year renovation and a dramatic transformation, the museum shines new light on American history, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).