As a young woman with a home economics degree from the University of Tennessee, Jean Cardwell of Loudon became the first director for the Tennessee Public Welfare Department's food stamp program.
Rolled out April 1, 1967, the program was administered from an office at the old Fort Hill High School building.
At that time, food stamps were sold. Qualifying clients could purchase the vouchers with which food could be purchased more cheaply.
"This program was brand new," Cardwell said. "We had no manuals or anything, just a Knox County (Welfare Department) worker who came down to help one day. The stamps were skinnier than a post card. We kept them at a bank and just checked them out on the days they were sold.
"We went to churches in Greenback and Philadelphia one day a month," she said. "We went to Lenoir City two times a month and met people at the fire hall."
The office also had an executive secretary, Frances Firestone, who assured things ran smoothly.
Cardwell said the stamp program originally was for people who were disabled, blind, widowed or elderly.
"One lady told me using stamps gave her about $10 more a month for food. She said it may not seem like much, but she was able to get enough canned goods saved up to cook a Thanksgiving dinner," Cardwell said. "It meant an awful lot to her because it stretched her food budget."
"When the free food stamp program came out, we were dealing with people who worked, the families who made the lowest income in the county," she said. "The chair factory paid minimum wage. With food stamps, they were able to eat better."
While Cardwell said she enjoyed the aspect of helping people, in the early days she managed to throw in a little bit of education along the way, teaching people about nutrition, economizing or whatever might be needed. Originally, she had hoped to become a kindergarten teacher.
"One lady came in who was a grandmother," Cardwell said. "She had no education. She couldn't write her name. Back then it was legal if they touched the pen for you to sign for them. But I told her she needed to be able to write her name ... She learned to write her first name and she was so proud of that."
The start According to Valisa Thompson, Tennessee Department of Human Services director of communications, the Food Stamps Service agency was established Aug. 8, 1969, but many of the food programs originated long before. Thompson said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - formerly the Food Stamp Program and now the cornerstone of USDA's nutrition assistance - began in its modern form in 1961.
"It had its origins in the Food Stamp Plan to help the needy in the 1930s," she said. "The National School Lunch Program also has its roots in Depression-era efforts to help low-income children. The Needy Family Program, which has evolved into the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, was the primary means of food assistance during the Great Depression."
Cardwell led the Food Stamp Program in Loudon County from 1967 to 1973, then transferred to social services. "I enjoyed my time at food stamps," Cardwell said. "I felt like we were really helping people. Frances (Firestone) felt the same way."
One thing made the job a bit nerve wrecking for the women, however. They carried food stamps and money into rural areas without any kind of security.
"The police knew we would be there, but they didn't stay with us," Cardwell said. "As soon as we got through, we got in our car and left. I don't remember feeling scared. I don't scare easily, but I didn't want to sit in an empty church. We were never confronted and none of the stamps were ever stolen. I guess the people were thankful for the help."
Numbers grow Since 2001, numbers of individuals participating in the SNAP roughly tripled, while the total amount of assistance issued has quadrupled. In January 2001, 2,505 individuals in 1,185 households were served, for a total of $178,770 in assistance. In January 2012, Loudon County served 7,200 individuals, 3,339 households and issued a total of $935,311 in assistance.
Cardwell does not remember the amount of assistance when she was director. However, on a national scale, according to Thompson, the program ballooned from $1.6 billion in 1970, the first year of the agency's operation, to $82.7 billion appropriated for programs in 2010.