THE HISTORY OF FOOD STAMP CHANGE TOKENS
The E-Sylum (2/1/2015)
For those who were not collecting in the 1970's and don't remember these tokens, a little background. From the 1930's onward, food coupons were available to individuals and families whose income was below a certain level. The system is still around today, but the coupons have been replaced by a SNAP card similar to a credit card. The coupons used during the 1960's through 1990's were the same size as and similar to currency and were probably printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (they were shredded along with currency and sold in bags to visitors to the Bureau). The coupons were colorful and well-made and attracted the interest of collectors. However, possession (or collecting) of food stamps by those not registered in the program was illegal.
In the 1960's the lowest value "food stamp" was 50 cents. About 1970 that value was eliminated and one dollar was the lowest value coupon. By law stores were not allowed to give real money in change for food coupons, but the government provided no means to solve this problem. As a result, each store came up with its own method. Many stores, especially smaller stores, simply wrote out the amount of change due on the register receipt, initialed it and gave it to the customer to be used on his next visit. Other stores had paper scrip printed with which to make change. Some stores had metal tokens made to use for change. Some stores had plastic tokens made. The earlier plastic tokens came in sets of four values -- 1, 5, 10, and 25 cents. The only tokens I have seen in this series were dollar size.
When the 50 cent coupon was discontinued, stores began using 5 piece sets which included a 50 cent token. The vast majority of these five piece sets are in a standard format -- 29mm with a common reverse reading: FOOD STAMP CREDIT / (value) / IN ELIGIBLE FOODS. The colors were also standard 1c black, 5c green, 10c blue, 25c orange, 50c pink. All of these were made by the Plasco Company in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The style of the reverse changed from time to time, all with white lettering, except on the last issue which has no colored lettering but has raised lettering instead.
The law was changed beginning in January 1979 allowing the stores to give our actual coins for amounts below one dollar, and the food stamp change tokens disappeared. The company is still in business today, still making 29mm plastic tokens for bars, but now offers other sizes and styles of tokens. There is a catalog of food stamp tokens used in California, and such tokens are listed in the supplements to the catalog of Wisconsin tokens, and possibly in the Pennsylvania token catalog. I have recorded food stamp tokens in my catalog of Missouri tokens (not yet published). In my collection I have over 50 different sets from St. Louis alone and probably 100 to 200 sets from other towns in the state. The tokens were used in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Though there has been little collector interest in them, most food stamp tokens are actually RARE. Why? When the tokens were discontinued, Neil Shafer in Milwaukee went to the manufacturer in LaCrosse and purchased all the samples kept by the company for reference. All uncirculated and mostly in full sets, thousands of these sets were sold around 1980 through auctions by Christensen & Stone (Temple City, CA) and later by other token dealers. I tried to buy every Missouri set in the C & S sales, but I missed a few --- and never saw them offered again until the past year or so.
Back in the 1980's these tokens were generally only sold in full sets and sold for $2 to $3 a set. The ones I missed which have turned up on eBay in the past year I was unable to buy at $15 to $20 a set. The reason most of these tokens are rare is because most of them only exist as samples from the manufacturer -- who was unlikely to have kept more than two or three sets from each issuer. The stores most likely threw away the ones they had on hand. Many store owners believed, incorrectly, that the tokens were also illegal to own (or collect) if you were not registered in the program.
I was living in Stevens Point, Wisconsin in the late 1970's. Three IGA food stores there used these 29mm sets. Two of the stores would sell me all the tokens I wanted -- once I pointed out that I would be selling theollecting and cataloging m to collectors and every token sold (except the one cent) would be complete profit for the store (the tokens cost the store about 3 cents each at that time). I of course paid face value for the tokens. One store refused to sell me any tokens because the manager believed it was illegal. The other two stores were particularly happy to sell me tokens from other stores in the area which they had accepted my mistake. In the end, I put together a collection of about 60 different tokens from the three Stevens Point stores, which had used seven different series of tokens (though the store was undoubtedly unaware of this).
I've been interested in this vast collecting field since 1966 when Milwaukee went on the Food Stamp Program. I believe I was the first one to cross the bridge between collectors and individuals on the Food Stamp Program- they could not save their food stamp change and collectors by and large were not involved with the Program so they had no knowledge of what was being issued to food stamp customers.
Another strong attraction to me was that such issues existed only because the government said they had to be used instead of coins; these were not what any stores wanted to use. It did not matter what form this mandated store change took, as long as it served the purpose of keeping such change within the limits of the Program
I wrote several articles in the Whitman Numismatic Journal (two in 1966, one in 1968) barely scratching the surface of this area. When USDA said no more special food stamp change was necessary as of the end of 1970, I scrambled big time and located a good number of then-obsolete issues from all over the country. They came in all forms- scrip in denominations, various one-time-usage forms, and many different kinds of tokens. Some were plastic, others aluminum, brass, cardboard, wood (size of regular wooden nickels, issued as change),
Then in March of 1972, USDA surprised everyone with the announcement that the food stamp change requirement was to be reinstated, and the scramble was on in earnest. That's when Personalized Plastics came to the fore. That La Crosse- based company put out what must have been thousands of flyers promoting their plastic token sets, as their response was tremendous. They were also sympathetic to my request for some examples, as they sent me pieces from so many different locations I had to send some to Christensen and Stone in California so they could sell them and help me to pay PP for such a quantity. I did save a set from each store.
Their shipment to me covered the approximate years from 1973 through around 1975. The company was then sold to Plasco and I was refused any more cooperation whatsoever, so I have no firsthand knowledge of anything they produced after they took over. I imagine it was in the thousands of sets to various stores around the country.
There has been some literature on the subject from time to time. Jerry Schimmel put out his Food Stamp Change newsletter for a while. In 1980 he published a listing of food stamp tokens only (no paper scrip or forms) at the time he began his newsletter. I know various state listings have also been published but i don't have more exact information (I think FL is one).
In the Dec. 1972 TAMS Journal I wrote an article titled "Food Stamp Tokens, Scrip and Due Bills Nationwide" in which I illustrated a number of different tokens (including one of the wood issues) and paper issues. In the April 1989 Numismatist, an individual named Harold F. Nelson wrote an article titled "A Collector's Feast of Food Stamps". He shows some tokens and paper change as well. I have also written various article in Bank Note Reporter on the subject from time to time.
I firmly believe this area of collecting is virtually limitless; it can never be complete, that is obvious, and any listing of any sort is always subject to revision and additions. That being said, it still does not limit the fun of collecting something that has strong social connotations, plus the very possible discovery of previously unknown issues to the numismatic world).
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
FOOD STAMP CHANGE TOKEN INFORMATION SOUGHT (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v18n04a06.html)