My first experience with food stamps was as a kid, growing up in Peekskill, New York. In the grocery store, my mother would give my sister and me the glance, which meant not to stare at the people in front of us, who were ripping coupons from booklets to pay for their food. I remember feeling like we were expected to help them keep a secret -- that some people couldn't pay cash for their food. This raft of memories unexpectedly floated up when I helped the Smithsonian bring a collection of food stamps into the National Numismatic Collection.
This time, rather than helping to protect a secret, the National Museum of American History is celebrating these ingenious slips of paper and the system of emergency currency they represent. Numismatically speaking, food stamps are remarkable. They tell us a story about the most ambitious system of food aid ever created by any government, anywhere.
They were money: printed by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and backed by the Federal Government. But unlike the green dollars some of us still prefer to use instead of a debit card, food stamps were intended to be a single-use medium of exchange. After they did their job enabling a hungry person to go home with food, the store had to send them back to the government, where they would be counted and cancelled. Grocery store merchants got reimbursed in real dollars for each food stamp dollar they turned in.
But the story didn't end there. Food stamp purchases could not be accurately completed without a mechanism for making small change. Think about it. I use a $5 coupon to make a $4.50 purchase. The cashier can't, by government order, give me back 50 cents. Some genius (or perhaps an avid Monopoly game fan?) invents change chits. Individual grocery stores were responsible for creating their own change and we've collected quite an informative array of them -- tokens, printed pieces of colored construction paper, and other printed items which not only served as change but reminded the user where they came from. Change from Mike's Meat Market could not be used at the Safeway grocery store. This gives new meaning to the concept of a change jar, and users of food stamps were expected to keep a multitude of change chits organized for future use.
In addition to this array of food stamps and change chits, we also collected some of the technology used for printing the coupons (including unadopted designs) and Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that let people pay without fumbling through coupon books.
This post also appears on the Smithsonian's O Say Can You See? blog, an Atlantic partner site.