Federal court rules against Obama administration’s food stamp secrecy

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The Obama administration has for years refused to release information about how much retailers make on food stamps. Tuesday, however, a federal court rejected the government’s secrecy arguments.

The story begins in 2011, when the Argus Leader, a the South Dakota news outlet, sought food stamp revenue data for each store participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp program, from fiscal years 2005 to 2010 via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The request came against the backdrop of — as the court noted — the expanding cost of and participation in food stamp program, where from 2007 to 2011 spending more than doubled from $30 billion to $72 billion.

When the government refused, arguing that statutory language prevented the Department of Agriculture from releasing retailer information, the paper sued.

Tuesday, in a unanimous decision the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower courts’ decision and ruled against the government’s argument that releasing the revenue data, violated a federal statute preventing the Department of Agriculture from releasing retailer data.

“Because the retailer spending information is not ‘submit[ted]’ by ‘an applicant retail food store or wholesale food concern,’ … the information is not exempt from disclosure,” Judge William Jay Riley wrote for the court. “The department, not any retailer, generates the information, and the underlying data is ‘obtained’ from third-party payment processors, not from individual retailers.”

Since the data is provided via third party and not the retailers themselves, the USDA is not barred from releasing the data, the court ruled.

With its ruling, the court did not compel the government to provide the information to the Argus Leader, but rather remanded the case back to the lower court.

The cost and participation in the program has continued to grow since the Argus Leader first requested the data. Currently about one in seven Americans currently on food stamps, or 47.6 million people.

The USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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