Janet Golden: The Real “Food Stamp President”

Roundup: Historians' Take

Janet Golden is a frequent contributor to HNN and professor of history at Rutgers University.

Political commentators have correctly called out the ugly racism infusing the claim that President Obama is the “food stamp President.”  Policy experts make two other points:  first, most recipients of what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are children in working families and their parents and second, most of them are, in US census terms, “white.” 

And there is another error as well. The real “food stamp President” was Franklin D. Roosevelt.  His efforts to support the nutritional needs of hungry Americans began with the distribution of surplus commodities—an effort that became the foundation of the National School Lunch Program. Its history can be found here:  (http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/AboutLunch/ProgramHistory_4.htm) While the provision of surplus commodities helped some, in his second inaugural address in 1937 the President looked out on a nation and saw that one third remained “ill-nourished.”  One response was the US Department of Agriculture’s experimental food stamp program, which lasted from 1939 to 1943.  Its history can be found here.


Commodity food assistance and food stamp programs did not end hunger and malnutrition in America but they vastly and measurably improved the nutritional situation of millions of Americans during the Great Depression and in the decades that followed. Today we don’t have children knocking on our doors on their way to school to beg for something to eat and we don’t see people fainting on the street from hunger.  Part of the credit for that goes to our “food stamp President,” Franklin D. Roosevelt and to all his successors who kept these vital programs going.

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