The public’s right to information was bolstered by a federal judge’s decision that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should release data about how much taxpayers pay to retailers through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by Argus Leader Media in South Dakota, which had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the “annual sales amounts of every business in the nation that participates in SNAP. USDA refused to release the data, and the paper filed suit in 2011.”
The Association of Health Care Journalists, joined by several other journalism organizations, supported the effort in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in April 2013. An op-ed by Felice J. Freyer and Irene M. Wielawski, then co-chairs of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, was published in the Los Angeles Times in August 2013 calling for the release of the data.
“This ruling is a great victory for taxpayers’ right to know how their money is being spent,” said Felice J. Freyer, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. “It’s also an example of why news outlets can and should push back — in court, if need be — when they are denied access to government information. Congratulations to the Argus Leader on its courage, commitment — and success.”
Food industry representatives argued that their businesses would suffer competitive harm from the release of revenue data but District Judge Karen Schreier disagreed. “SNAP sales are merely a part of the store’s total revenue,” she wrote. “SNAP data does not disclose a store’s profit margins, net income, or net worth. SNAP data also does not disclose how a company bids on government contracts or negotiates with the federal government.”
According to the Argus Leader, the USDA is reviewing the ruling and has 60 days to appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
August 2013: The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by the co-chairs of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to end the secrecy surrounding the multibillion-dollar food stamps program.