House Bill would Force Disclosure of How Food Stamp Money is Spent

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The media and nutrition advocates have been fighting for years to get the federal government to release information on what groceries are purchased by people using food stamps. Now, a member of Congress wants to know too, and has introduced legislation to force the disclosure of the data.


Representative Tom Marino (R-Pennsylvania) has proposed the “SNAP Transparency Act,” which would require the secretary of agriculture to establish a reporting system so retailers could track “the complete range, identities, sizes, quantities, and costs of particular food items” bought with benefits from the $80-billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps).


Journalists and others have asked for this information, primarily to help address nutritional and health problems of low-income people. However, they have been told by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it does not have the authority to collect the data. The bill would grant such power, and require the agency to post the information on a publicly searchable database.


The Tulsa World in Oklahoma reported that nearly half the state’s SNAP money went to Walmart stores. The newspaper was able to run the story only after state officials mistakenly turned over the data without knowing of the federal prohibition on releasing food-stamp purchases.


In South Dakota, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader sued the USDA in federal court to obtain SNAP details from retailers. The case is before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Pa. Bill Would Require Disclosure of Food Stamp Purchases (by Felice Freyerm, Association of Health Care Journalists)

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)


Tom Burnett 10 years ago
Studying Food Stamp Purchases Using Receipts or Food Stamps Are Going to Waist Main findings from $997.16 in store receipts analyzed: • 28% spent in full-service grocery stores was for sweetened beverages, snacks, chips, and candy • Nationally $16-25 billion of total $77 billion food stamp spending could be for sweetened beverages such as soda, Red Bull, Gatorade, Gushers, Sobe, Capri Sun, Lipton Iced Tea and Frappuccino Brand name, national brand soda 87% $60.94 Discount and store brand soda 13% $9.32 Advocates for food stamps say that food stamp participants choose fattening things like pop because they have to stretch their dole dollars, to maximize caloric content on their limited budget. Advocates call this calorie-mining. If this were true, program participants would choose cheaper store brand sodas. Participants mostly don’t; advocates are wrong. Sweetened beverages purchased: $139.33 14% of $997, (bearing in mind that these purchases were in full-service grocery stores; no convenience stores were in the sample.) Water and milk purchased: $31.36 3% of $997 Recipients purchase sweetened beverages 4.5 times as often as water and milk. Snacks, chips, and candy purchased: $143.09 14% of $997 Add sweetened beverages, candy, chips, and snacks together. 28% of food stamp purchases, in these full-service grocery stores, are for these deleterious, non-nutritional items-one hardly dares to call them foods. This fact refutes the food desert argument, which is that food stamp participants buy unhealthy foods because they do not have full-service grocery stores available in their neighborhoods. Steaks and other cuts of meats: $58.79 Hamburger: $31.38 (Only one or two instances of steak. This somewhat mutes the complaint observers have about food stamp recipients eating steaks and lobster that the rest of us have to ration.) Educating Recipients to Make Healthy Choices Government programs, like SNAP Education, to persuade food stamp recipients to buy fruits and vegetables, are not working. Desist funding them. Save $120 million per year. Leafy green vegetables purchased: none. One bag of Fresh Express Cole Slaw was purchased for $1.79. Raw vegetables and fruit purchased: $43.69 4.3% Contrast this with $143.09 spent on snacks chips and candy and $139.33 on sweetened beverages, for a total of $282.42. How does this compare to the average shopping basket of American shoppers at grocery stores? I have a message in with Richard Volpe of USDA ERS at 202-694-5050 to find a source for shopping basket statistics. $8.88 of the $997 was for potatoes, a commendable, sturdy, staple food. Bananas, blueberries and oranges were the only fruits purchased. How much did recipients purchase of peanut butter, tuna, rice, flour and other baking supplies, dried pasta products, beans or lentils? None. These staples are inexpensive sources of nutrition. These are the items that families have always relied on to stretch their food dollars. Recipients appear not to have to stretch their dole dollars. How much dried pasta product was purchased? None, except $4.97 was spent on boxed macaroni and cheese and bagged ramen. How much hot cereal was purchased? None. This is the most energy-rich way to stretch breakfast dollars and would be observed if calorie-mining was occurring. Sugary cereal purchased: $20.71. Ready-to-microwave food items, take-and-bake pizza, and jerky totaled $62.08. (Some of the line items’ abbreviations were obscure so this tally may be low.) Ready-to-eat foods were absolutely preferred over ingredients requiring more than the simplest preparation. Items requiring boiling or baking or even making a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich were not seen on the receipts. Now that we have examined categories of spending by food stamp recipients, and conclude that purchases are for tasty and convenient foods that are low in nutritive value, and now that we have dispelled the “calorie-mining” and “food deserts” excuses for why food stamp recipients are gaining weight faster than the general population, we turn the focus to sweetened beverages. Three estimates of total spent, nationwide, on sweetened beverages through SNAP Estimate 1: USDA Secretary Vilsak writes that 15% of SNAP goes through convenience stores. About 85% would then go through grocery stores, ignoring the relatively few restaurant and home delivery purchases made. Annual spending in SNAP is $77 billion. Hunch: 85% of food stamp spending in convenience stores may be for sweetened beverages. Until convenience stores provide data on purchases, a hunch will suffice. Grocery stores: 14% of 85% of $77 billion= $9.16 billion Convenience stores: 85% of 15% of $77 billion= $9.81 billion Estimate 1: Total national SNAP spending on sweetened beverages= $18.97 billion In Maryland, 72% of SNAP benefits are spent in supermarkets. Maybe Sec. Vilsak was saying that 15% of outlets serving the food stamp program were convenience stores, not 15% of purchases. If 72% is true across the nation, the $18.97 billion estimate would be low. Estimate 2: Shenkin and Jacobson quote a study where 6.19% of the grocery bills of SNAP participants was for carbonated drinks, a smaller category than sweetened beverages. When he spoke with Dr. Shenkin, he said only the number was available to him. He got it from a large grocery chain and they were not willing to be cited or reveal their data, out of concern for media and government pushback. Carbonated drinks in my $997 sample were $70.26 of the $139.33 for all sweetened beverages, or 50%. Double Shenkin’s 6.19% and you get 12.38% for total sweetened beverages, fairly close to my 14% finding. Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is at 207-947-6733. He’s a pediatric dentist and collaborates with CSPI. If we use 12.38% and Massachusetts’ store/convenience store figure of 72%/28%, we get: 12.38% of 72% of $77 billion= $6.86 billion 85% of 28% of $77 billion = $18.33 billion Estimate 2: Total $25.18 billion for sweetened beverages. That’s a lot of waist. $25 billion/$77 billion= 32.5% SNAP purchases for sweetened beverages. That would be $532 for each of the 47 million SNAP recipients. $0 spent on oatmeal. Estimate 3: I asked a convenience store clerk in Belgrade February 22nd if he estimated the majority of food stamp purchases there were for beverages. He thought about 50-50, beverages and cold deli, such as sandwiches. A clerk in Billings thought a little less than half was for beverages, more ready-to-microwave foods and cold deli items. If we say 45% of convenience store purchases are for sweet beverages and use the Massachusetts split between store types, we get: 12.38% of 72% of $77 billion= $6.86 billion 45% of 28% of $77 billion= $9.7 billion Estimate 3: Total $16.56 billion of total SNAP spending for sweet beverages, or 22%. Three estimates: $16.56, $18.97 or $25.18 billion SNAP spending on sweetened beverages annually. The End Terms: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Studying my second sample, a total of $1,681.91 in food stamp purchases, I found 7.8% of SNAP purchases were for sweetened beverages. We deserve more data from store receipts nationwide in order to understand the extent of spending on various items by program recipients.

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