Newspaper’s suit over food stamp data headed to Supreme Court

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski (@wielawski), an independent journalist based in New York, is a founder and former board member of AHCJ and serves on the organization’s Right to Know Committee.

Photo: Christopher Reilly via Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case brought eight years ago by a South Dakota newspaper asserting the public’s right to know how much taxpayer money goes to grocers and other retailers who participate in the federal food stamp program.

The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls won at the federal appellate court level last year, but a new challenge asserting the confidentiality of business records has pushed the case to the nation’s highest court.

At issue is the longstanding practice of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shield the amount of money retailers, including big box enterprises like WalMart, make from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the formal name for food stamps.

The Argus Leader has steadfastly argued that the public has a right to know how tax dollars are spent, and AHCJ has supported that argument and the newspaper’s pursuit of sales data under the Freedom of Information Act. With a 2019 fiscal year budget of $84 billion, SNAP is one of the nation’s largest safety net programs.

The case’s latest twist involves a challenge from the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group that contends such sales data constitute confidential business records whose public disclosure would cause competitive harm to the more than 300,000 SNAP retailers. It cites an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for such “confidential” records as well as conflicting lower court rulings on how to interpret the exemption.

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to review the ruling of the three-judge 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue. The appellate court has twice sided with the Argus Leader since the newspaper filed suit in 2011. Its most recent ruling in May 2018 explicitly rejected the Food Marketing Institute’s argument, saying that the requested food stamp data would not be detailed enough to cause competitive harm, according to Argus Leader.

“We continue to stand beside the Argus Leader in its tenacious fight for transparency in how our government spends taxpayers’ money,” said AHCJ President Ivan Oransky, M.D. “We hope the wisdom of the 8th Circuit judges will be recognized by the Supreme Court.”

AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee has long protested the extraordinary secrecy surrounding SNAP. As Committee Chair Felice J. Freyer and I wrote in a 2013 op-ed which ran in the Los Angeles Times and 40 other newspapers, comparable federal benefit programs do not permit vendors’ commercial interests to stand in the way of public disclosure of how they spend tax dollars.

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

In 2013, AHCJ joined with six other journalism and open-government groups in a letter to Tom Vilsack, then the USDA secretary, asking him to release vendor and other SNAP data. He declined.

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