News watchdogs slam ‘secretiveness’ of food stamp program data

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Seven journalist and government watchdog organizations have called on the Agriculture Department to release information on how much money retailers that accept food stamps make from the program and what products food stamp dollars are purchasing.

In a letter [pdf] to Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack, the organizations — which have a combined membership of more than 16,000, many of them journalists who cover health care, nutrition and the federal government — requested the USDA make public records pertaining to the use of SNAP dollars.

“The USDA has refused to reveal how much money individual retailers make from SNAP, arguing in FOIA denials and subsequent court documents that the law governing the program prohibits it. But we (and others) see nothing in the law barring such disclosures,” the letter reads. “And we believe this information is essential to an informed discussion of the Farm Bill reauthorization and the future of the SNAP program.”

“As the number of Americans receiving SNAP continues to increase, along with the federal taxpayer support of it, a greater level of transparency is more essential than ever,” it continued.

The organization heads who signed the letter were from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Association of Food Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The letter, sent at the beginning of April and currently being reviewed by the USDA, further presses for information about what products are purchased with SNAP and how much is spent on each item in total, something they note would be particularly useful in conversations related to public health debates.

“Additionally, the USDA does not disclose which products are purchased with SNAP dollars — or how much is spent on each product, in aggregate — information that is extremely relevant to the public-­policy debate about causes and health consequences of obesity, particularly in children,” the letter continued.

“As medical professionals and policy makers call for limits on the use of food stamps to buy ‘junk food’ and soft drinks, data about the type and healthfulness of food purchases is necessary to inform the discussion.”

They added that the “secretiveness” is unlike transparency policies of similar programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provide data on where welfare beneficiaries withdraw cash assistance with their EBT cards. The journalists’ coalition added that they have not heard “a good reason for this secrecy.”

“[W]e believe it is simply wrong to withhold basic information about a multibillion-­dollar program from the people who pay for it,” they continued, noting that the Obama administration pledged “a new era of openness and transparency. Making this information publicly available would be an important step in fulfilling this pledge.”

The food stamp program reached a record high participation rate in December, with 47,792,056 people enrolled.

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