On May 29, 1961, Elderson Muncie of Bradshaw, McDowell County, an unemployed miner and father of 15 children, received the first food stamps in the nation. The purpose of the new federal program was to provide supplemental income for welfare recipients and families below certain levels of income. Prior to 1961, surplus commodities were distributed to the needy. Because of its high unemployment and poverty rates, West Virginia always has been a major focus of this program. The stamps originally used were later replaced by coupon books.
In his campaign for the presidential nomination in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy paid several visits to West Virginia and was moved by the malnutrition and poverty he observed. As president, Kennedy directed the government to establish a pilot food stamp program, with low-income families to be issued food stamps, which could then be exchanged at grocery stores. West Virginia was the first of eight states to issue food stamps. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 made the program permanent. West Virginia became the first state to implement the program statewide.
The bulk of the funding for the food stamp program comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also sets the guidelines and audits the state-administered programs. In West Virginia, public assistance agencies administer the program. In 2001, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources assumed this responsibility.
The number of recipients of food stamps per capita has always been high in West Virginia. During the fiscal year 2009, an average of 305,960 West Virginians (almost 17 percent of the estimated population) received food stamps.
For several years prior to 2001, the West Virginia program was sanctioned by the federal government for its high error rate. Following steps to correct deficiencies, the federal sanction against West Virginia was lifted, and in May 2001 the Department of Agriculture awarded the state extra funding of $1.9 million for its outstanding performance.
Written by Ken Hechler