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FOI

Court strikes down USDA claim that food stamp program data is exempt from FOIA

In a victory for advocates of government transparency, a federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected the government’s arguments for withholding data on how much money individual retailers earn from food stamps.

Acting in a case brought by a South Dakota newspaper, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit unanimously ruled against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s claim that a federal law bars disclosure of retailers’ earning from food stamps.

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls filed suit after the USDA rejected the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for data on annual payments to individual retailers from 2005 to 2010. The USDA argued that a law protecting the privacy of retailers’ applications to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (the official name for food stamps) prohibited release of that information. A district court had earlier sided with the government, ruling that this information was exempt from FOIA, but the appeals court on Tuesday disagreed.

While rejecting the government’s argument for continuing secrecy, the appeals court stopped short of ordering the USDA to turn over data on vendor payments to the Argus Leader. Instead, the three-judge panel sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier for rehearing. Schreier had ruled in favor of USDA in September 2012. The U.S. Department of Justice, which represented USDA in the case, did not say Tuesday whether it would appeal.

Karl Stark, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, hailed the appeals court ruling as “a real victory for government transparency and for taxpayers who have a right to know how their money is being spent.” He added that under current USDA policy, the $80 billion SNAP program has been operating as a “governmental black hole,” leaving important public policy questions unanswered.

Last April, AHCJ and six other journalism and open-government groups wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking him to release the payment data on vendors. Vilsack replied in October, citing the same law at issue in the suit as reason for not releasing the information.

In August, Irene M. Wielawski and Felice J. Freyer, on behalf of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee continued to press the case in a Los Angeles Times op-ed  that was picked up by more than 40 newspapers and online news organizations.

Arguing for the public’s right to know how taxpayer dollars are spent, the column called on USDA to disclose payments to individual retailers and on Congress to authorize USDA to collect and make public information on what kinds of food are purchased with SNAP dollars.

“The secrecy surrounding food stamps far exceeds that of any federal safety-net program,” the op-ed said.

“Medicare and Medicaid routinely identify the hospitals and clinics that receive government dollars and list how much each is paid for the services provided. News outlets have been free to report where recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program use their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card to withdraw cash assistance. But SNAP is kept under wraps.”

“The court ruling today is a good start,” said AHCJ’s Stark, the health and science editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. But he said the public is entitled to know what foods are bought with food stamp dollars. Congress has not authorized USDA to collect this information. “The public should know how much of the food stamp budget overall – not individuals’ purchases – is going for fruits and vegetables and how much for soft drinks and snack foods.”

AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee will continue to press for full transparency on SNAP spending.

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