The USDA may soon be forced to release information about how much money the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–also known as the food stamp program–pays to specific retailers. This is the subject of FERN’s latest report for Mother Jones by Tracie McMillan, bestselling author of The American Way of Eating.
“The Argus Leader, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, paper, brought suit against the USDA in 2011 after the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking data on USDA’s annual payments to grocers, gas stations, and other retailers in the SNAP program,” writes McMillan, explaining why the case is now in court. “USDA routinely tracks the payments, which retailers process as they do credit cards: the stores accept recipients’ Electronic Benefits Transfer cards as payment, and in turn the government pays the stores.”
Releasing this data would be unprecedented for the USDA, which contends that the information is private, and could lead to the disclosure of other closely held information. “The Argus case,” writes McMillan, “could also lay the groundwork for the release of other SNAP data that retailers have fought to keep private: what SNAP recipients buy with their benefits.” Last year, food retailers defeated a farm bill amendment proposed by Rep. Thomas Marino (R-PA) that would have created a pilot program requiring retailers to track what SNAP shoppers bought with their benefits.
McMillan obtained an email from Greg Ferrara, a vice-president of the National Grocers Association, voicing the organization’s opposition to such requirements: “We DO NOT want a freaking vote on it,” Ferrara wrote in the email, adding that Marino’s amendment would “expose [grocers] to significant new attacks from the left and right if this becomes law.”
Food retailers claim that releasing payment data like that requested by the Argus could give competitors an unfair advantage. According to one recent estimate, 18 percent of all SNAP sales are conducted at Walmart, or about $13 billion annually.
Advocates argue that retailer data would make it possible to judge whether new, government-subsidized stores are serving SNAP shoppers. “We’re working kind of blind when it comes to real hard empirical data,” says James Johnson Piett, a developer and consultant working on low-income supermarkets and healthful corner stores.