Appeals Court Rules Agriculture Dept. Shouldn’t Hide Retailer Earnings from Food Stamps

Friday, January 31, 2014

The federal government may have to release information about how much retailers make off food stamps, now that a federal appeals court has ruled (pdf) such data should be made public.


A South Dakota newspaper, the Argus Leader, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the official name of food stamps) after officials refused to disclose retailer earnings from 2005 to 2010.


The USDA claimed federal law prohibits it from revealing this data as part of Freedom of Information Act requests, which the newspaper filed. So the Argus Leader sued in federal court, where it lost the first round in district court.


But after petitioning the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the newspaper convinced a panel of judges that U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier had erred in siding with the USDA. However, rather than directing the agency to release the retailer data to the newspaper, the appellate justices—in a unanimous ruling— ordered the case to be reheard in Schreier’s courtroom. The USDA can still argue for an exemption on other grounds, such as privacy or confidentiality.


Karl Stark, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, praised 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.”


While Stark believes the ruling is “a good start,” he also wants to see the USDA disclose the kinds of purchases that are being made through SNAP, such as fruits and vegetables versus snack foods and soft drinks. He added that the $80 billion SNAP program has been operating as a “governmental black hole,” leaving important public policy questions unanswered.


“The secrecy surrounding food stamps far exceeds that of any federal safety-net program,” Irene M. Wielawski and Felice J. Freyer wrote last year in an op-ed piece for The Los Angeles Times. “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.”


There are hundreds of thousands of vendors nationwide contracted with SNAP. And although 15% of them are made up of small convenience stores and markets, those retailers constitute 85% of the fraud perpetrated against the program.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Court Strikes Down USDA Claim That Food Stamp Program Data is Exempt from FOIA (by Irene Wielawski, Association of Health Care Journalists)

Court Rules in Argus Leader's Favor on Making Food Stamp Data from Businesses Public (by Steve Young, Argus Leader)

Argus Leader v. U.S. Department of Agriculture (Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

USDA Refuses to Release Food Stamp Profits Details (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Which Corporations Profit from Food Stamps? (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Vicki Baker, AllGov)


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