It all began with Mabel McFiggin.

It was 1939 and McFiggin, an unemployed factory worker fromRochester, New York, bought surplus butter, prunes and eggs using the nation'sfirst ever food stamps.

They came in two colors, orange and blue. McFiggin, as theprogram's inaugural recipient, paid $4 and received $6 worth of stamps.

It's just the beginning of the lengthy history of the welfareprogram, which turns 75 years old this year. The first program helped 20million people in a four-year span at the tail end of the Great Depression. ThatDepression-era program lasted but a few years, but now, more Americans thanever are receiving food stamps, with the U.S. Department of Agriculturereporting more than 47 million people rely on government assistance to put foodon the table.

 

1939

In essence, the idea was simple: To help the nation's farmers andfeed the poor at the same time.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first farm policy intolaw in 1933 in an effort improve the agriculture economy and pull America out ofthe Great Depression.

Yet, in 1939, agriculture surpluses were driving down prices andunemployment was high. A March 14, 1939, article in the WashingtonPost described the food stamp program as a farm recovery programwith the unemployed eating the nation's surplus food.

"If the (commodity) prices fell below a certain level, then thegovernment went into the marketplace and bought those commodities to drive upthe price support," said Barry Flinchbaugh, a Kansas State University economist andagricultural policy expert.

The government then distributed the surplus food, such as milkand cheese, to the poor, Flinchbaugh said.

"We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluseson one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on theother," said the program's first director, Milo Perkins. "We set out to find apractical way to build a bridge across that chasm."

According to the Catholic Journal, for every $1 of orange stampspurchased, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were received. Those receivingbenefits could buy any food with orange stamps, but recipients could only use theblue stamps to buy food determined by the USDA to be surplus.

 By 1943, the orange andblue stamp program ended "since the conditions that brought the programinto being - unmarketable food surpluses and widespread unemployment - nolonger existed," according to the USDA.

Poverty on the campaign trail

Despite the program's end, America still had poverty.Advocates for the poor worked to revive a food assistance program.

In 1959, Rep. Lenore Sullivan, D-Mo., successfully championed alegislative amendment to launch a pilot, USDA-administered food-stamp program,according to the USDA history. While the Eisenhower Administration never usedthe authority, President John F. Kennedy, moved by the poverty he saw on thecampaign trail in West Virginia,used his first executive order to expand food distribution. Recipients werestill to purchase stamps, with the government's emphasis on increasing theconsumption of perishables.

Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy of Paynesville W.V. were the first touse the new food stamp program, purchasing $95 in food stamps for their15-person household. Their first food stamp transaction was buying a can ofpork and beans at a local supermarket, according to the USDA.

By January 1964, the pilot program had expanded from eight to 43areas in 22 states with 380,000 participants. Later that month, PresidentJohnson signed a permanent program into law. By 1966, more than 1 millionpeople were using the food stamp benefits.

By the late 1970s, recipients no longer had to pay for stamps. Legislationin 1977 also established food stamp guidelines and a poverty line, as well aspenalized households whose heads voluntarily quit jobs, restricted eligibilityfor students and aliens and eliminated the requirement that households musthave cooking facilities, according to USDA history.

A marriage made in heaven?

It was Kansas'own Bob Dole who welded food stamps and farm spending into one bill.

Call it political genius. That was the 1970s and Dole, aRepublican senator, and George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, formed anunlikely alliance. However, the pairing helped gain support from urbanlegislators for agriculture subsidies, along with rural support for foodprograms.

The precedent continued until last summer, when the House splitthe two. However, food stamps and the farm bill came back together late lastyear. On Wednesday, the House passed farm and food legislation, sending themeasure to the Senate, which will vote on it Monday.

Tying the two together is a marriage that Flinchbaugh says isneeded.

"We need each other," says Flinchbaugh. "If we get rid of foodstamps (from the farm bill), if you think of it that way, you don't understand wherelittle babies come from in the political world.

There are 400 urban congressional districts and 35 ruraldistricts he said.

"That is not rocket science," Flinchbaugh said. "Do you think youcan pass a farm bill when you look at it that way?"

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