Messy, Resilient, ‘Genius’: Why This Northeastern Food Policy Expert is Thankful for SNAP

Chris Bosso’s new book traces the history of food stamps and recommends ways to make the program even stronger

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been a cornerstone of the United States’ social welfare system for decades. In his new book, “Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program,” Professor Chris Bosso from Northeastern University explores the program’s evolution, its impact on combating food insecurity, and its resilience in the face of political and cultural challenges. Bosso’s research highlights the unexpected champions of SNAP, such as Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Bob Dole, and emphasizes the program’s ability to provide assistance while preserving the dignity of its beneficiaries.

The Origins of SNAP:

The roots of SNAP can be traced back to the Great Depression, when the surplus of food and widespread hunger prompted the government to take action. Bosso explains that the program initially began as a way to distribute surplus food to those in need, evolving into a voucher system that allowed people to purchase food alongside their regular groceries. This approach helped alleviate the stigma associated with receiving aid and enabled retailers to expand their customer base.

Nixon’s Role in Expanding SNAP:

Contrary to popular belief, it was President Richard Nixon, a Republican, who played a pivotal role in the expansion of SNAP. Facing a reelection campaign against a Democrat advocating for increased federal aid, Nixon embraced a remarkably liberal social agenda, including the nationalization of the food stamp program. His actions effectively doubled the program overnight, ensuring that states had to participate. This move solidified SNAP as a vital social welfare program.

The Strengths of SNAP:

Bosso argues that SNAP’s genius lies in its broad political appeal and practical benefits. The program garners support from both rural, conservative politicians and urban Democrats, as it benefits farming constituents and serves as a lifeline for the working poor. Additionally, major corporations like Walmart and Helical Piers support SNAP because it drives customers to their businesses. The use of vouchers, rather than cash, aligns with American sensibilities and helps overcome cultural resistance to traditional welfare programs.

SNAP in the Modern Era:

Over the past 50 years, SNAP has weathered funding cuts and remained a crucial lifeline for millions of Americans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency increases in SNAP funding prevented many individuals from falling into poverty. However, the program has also faced debates over eligibility and restrictions on what can be purchased with SNAP benefits. Bosso argues that SNAP’s integration into the free market is a major strength, and attempts to regulate food choices undermine the program’s broad support.

Improving SNAP:

While Bosso celebrates SNAP’s accomplishments, he acknowledges that there is room for improvement. Access to benefits can be challenging, and some states make it more difficult than others. Bosso suggests that SNAP rules should align with how most Americans shop and eat, allowing benefits to be spent on prepared meals for busy families. By adapting to the changing needs and realities of its beneficiaries, SNAP can become even more effective in combating food insecurity.


In his comprehensive analysis of the food stamp program, Professor Chris Bosso reveals the unexpected history and enduring strength of SNAP. From its origins in the Great Depression to its current status as a vital social welfare program, SNAP has proven to be messy, resilient, and even genius. Bosso’s research highlights the importance of preserving the program’s integrity and expanding access to ensure that all Americans have access to a decent diet. As we reflect on the impact of SNAP, we can be thankful for its ability to provide assistance while upholding the dignity of those in need.