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.