Currently, the USDA refuses to reveal how much money individual retailers make from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. Additionally, the USDA does not disclose which products are purchased with SNAP dollars or how much is spent on each product, in aggregate.
This information could show which businesses benefit from the program and also inform public policy debates about obesity and its causes, the organization argues.
The USDA’s position runs contrary to President Obama’s promise of government transparency, and stands in sharp contrast with practices at other federal agencies. For example, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families discloses where recipients used their EBT cards to withdraw cash assistance. A wealth of information is available about Medicare and Medicaid.
“With any federal program, but especially one as large as SNAP, records should be public unless there is a compelling reason to hide them,” said the letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, signed by AHCJ president Charles Ornstein and leaders of the Association of Food Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the National Association of Science Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“We have yet to hear a good reason for this secrecy,” the letter said. “And we believe it is simply wrong to withhold basic information about a multibillion-dollar program from the people who pay for it.”
In at least two cases, state officials released retail-specific SNAP data to journalists, apparently unaware of the federal prohibition. The releases gave a glimpse of the valuable information hidden within. The Tulsa World examined $1.2 million in food stamp purchases over a two-year period and found that nearly half the money went to Walmart stores.
In 2010, the Massachusetts-based MuckRock, a public records request service, obtained a wealth of retail-specific SNAP data. A state official, saying the information was “erroneously released,” threatened the site’s owner, Michael Morisy with “fines or imprisonment.” The state backed off and the data remains available on Morisy’s website.
According to “Food Stamps: Follow the Money,” a report by the advocacy group EatDrinkPolitics, the data Morisy obtained showed that in one year, “nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars – over four times the SNAP money spent at farmers markets nationwide.”
In 2011, the Argus Leader, a newspaper in South Dakota, filed suit against the USDA seeking access to the food stamps data. The suit was rejected by federal District Court but the newspaper has appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“None of these battles should be necessary. These are taxpayers’ dollars—billions of them,” said Felice J. Freyer, co-chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. The Right to Know Committee took the lead on researching the issue, framing the arguments for public disclosure, and soliciting the support of the organizations that co-signed the letter.
“The public has a right to know how its money is spent,” said Irene Wielawski, Right to Know co-chair. “It’s especially important with a food program that is central to current public policy debates about health and nutrition.”