There is no shortage of commentary that has concluded the US food system has some pretty big pitfalls. Our food supply is awash with foods high in calories and low in nutrients; we have lots of people who struggle to put food on the table and yet we are among the most obese countries in the world. We produce a tremendous amount of food with a significant impact on our environment and yet about a 1/3 of the food we buy goes in the trash can instead of someone’s mouth. What factors contributed to our current situation?
Answering this question fully would take more page space than we have here, but we can take a quick look at the biggest factors that have shaped our food system, the largest of which is the federal government. Looking at the largest program first and working our way down, we’ll need to first take a look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP for short. It’s formerly known as “food stamps”, because in the beginning you would purchase stamps that would allow you to buy more food than the value of the cash used to buy the stamps. For example, you would pay $5 to get $10 in stamps you could redeem for food, the $5 could be used on anything but the additional $5 could only be used on foods deemed to be surplus.
It was started in the late 1940’s on a small scale in an effort to find a market for agricultural surpluses and to provide food assistance to people who needed it. At the time, there were significant agricultural surpluses and the government stepped in to stabilize those markets. In the late 1940s, the goal of agriculture policy changed dramatically, from production to the support of prices and several pieces of federal legislation were the beginning of crop subsidies as we know them today. You can read the details here if you are interested. These price supports, in turn, resulted in periods of surplus of those crops and programs like food stamps supported the market for those excess crops.
For this point forward, government intervention for pricing support and creating programs to address agricultural surplus will play a huge role in the relationship between politics and food in America. Agricultural surplus and politicians are the Adam and Eve of the American food system.
As the program continued to grow, President Kennedy signed an executive order in 1961 to formally establish the pilot program, and in 1964 President Johnson signed off on the Food Stamp Act of 1964. This legislation formalized the federal program and made some substantial changes such as allowing for all foods to be purchased except for luxury items and imported foods. Several pieces of legislation over the next 50 years made various changes, which are detailed here and limited the eligibility requirements and in varying times cutback or expanded the program.
Currently, SNAP has grown into the largest food assistance program in the country at a cost of a little over $70 billion dollars and provides benefits to about 14% of the population nationwide. That is one is seven Americans. As a comparison point, most countries that are comparable to the US give cash assistance, not specific food assistance programs. Canada, Australia and most European countries have adopted this model and some research suggests this has a better outcome on economic stability, but we’ll explore this in a later blog post.
Next up, the National School Lunch Program. Food and politics heads to the cafeteria! But before I go, do you have a story about SNAP a.k.a Food Stamps that you’d like to share? If so, include in the comments below.