Commentary: Secrecy about food stamp program is unhealthy Commentary: Secrecy about food stamp program is unhealthy
Last year, the food stamp program served a record 1.91 million Georgians,  nearly one-quarter of them 6 years old or younger. And by this... Commentary: Secrecy about food stamp program is unhealthy
The public doesn't know how much of the food stamp budget goes to fruits and vegetables.

The public doesn’t know how much of the food stamp budget goes to fruits and vegetables.

Last year, the food stamp program served a record 1.91 million Georgians,  nearly one-quarter of them 6 years old or younger. And by this June, the program had added 40,000 more recipients in the state. 

The  national growth in food stamps has fueled a movement in Congress to cut the program.

In this GHN Commentary, health journalists Felice J. Freyer and Irene M. Wielawski point to a mystery surrounding the program: How its billions of dollars are spent. 

Here is their Commentary:

 

 

The debate in Congress about cutting the food stamp program has sparked predictable clashes between those who want to help the poor and those who want to cut government spending. But strangely missing from the arguments is a shocking fact: The public, including Congress, knows almost nothing about how the program’s $80 billion is spent.

What foods are being purchased by the 47 million Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the official name for food stamps)? And how much money do specific retailers make from the program?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, isn’t telling.

It’s hard to understand why. The secrecy surrounding food stamps far exceeds that of any federal safety-net program.

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) cards to withdraw cash assistance.

But SNAP is kept under wraps. And Congress acts blindly, with the House voting to remove SNAP from the farm bill altogether and the Senate proposing to cut $4 billion from the program.

There are two categories of information being withheld, each for a different reason.

First is the question of food purchases. What foods are people buying with their SNAP benefits? How much of the SNAP budget is going for fruits and vegetables and how much for soft drinks and snack foods? No one knows. Here, Congress is the culprit: It has not given the USDA the authority to collect product-specific information, even though it would be easy to collect in an era of bar codes and EBT cards.

Second is the question of how much money individual retailers collect from the program. The Agriculture Department routinely collects this information; the agency knows precisely how much SNAP pays each of the nearly 247,000 grocers, gas stations, convenience markets, liquor stores and big-box stores that accept food stamps. But the agency will not reveal the numbers, citing tortured legal arguments that federal law and regulations prohibit such disclosures. In at least two instances (in Oklahoma and Massachusetts), state officials did release this information about vendors, and the USDA later chastised them for it.

In the absence of public information on what SNAP dollars buy and where they are spent, vital decisions are made in darkness. In 2010, the USDA denied New York City’s request to ban the purchase of soft drinks with food stamps — all without it having any solid information about the amount and cost of such products sold to SNAP recipients.

In the meantime, another federal agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, is spending billions of dollars to combat childhood obesity, which is affected by diet and disproportionately afflicts children living in poverty. And the American Medical Association has weighed in, pledging in June to work for a ban on the use of food stamps to buy sugary drinks.

A South Dakota newspaper, the Argus Leader, has taken the USDA to court after unsuccessful efforts to obtain the information on vendor earnings through Freedom of Information Act requests. The newspaper is challenging the USDA’s legal position against public disclosure, on the grounds that the agency is taking an overly broad reading of federal law and that the public has a right to know how much money individual retailers make from SNAP. The case is pending before the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In support of the Argus Leader’s position, the Association of Health Care Journalists and six other journalism and open-government groups wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in April, asking him to release the food stamp data that the USDA collects on vendors. We did so in the name of public accountability and government transparency, asserting that it’s simply wrong for the government to withhold basic information about a multibillion-dollar program from the people who pay for it. The USDA has not responded.

The SNAP program has more than doubled in cost and in the number of participants since 2005. One in seven Americans receives food stamps, and the current program accounts for 4 out of every 5 dollars authorized in the farm bill. While the privacy of food stamp recipients is paramount, the public has a right to know how much SNAP money each vendor earns for specific products sold, and Congress ought to know before making decisions that affect so many lives.

Are SNAP retailers providing healthy options? Are food stamp recipients finding good choices in their neighborhoods? What can communities do to improve residents’ access to nutritious food? This is critically important information for policymakers and communities that only Congress and the USDA can provide.

Felice J. Freyer and Irene M. Wielawski are co-chairs of the Right to Know Committee of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

This Commentary first appeared as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.

 


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Felice Freyer and Irene Wielawski

  • old native Georgia white guy

    I am sure the authors are well-meaning but they seem to be simply in the pursuit of information because it is there.The authors are apparently not old enough to remember the predecessor USDA surplus food distribution program nor the high incidence of starvation and/or malnutrition that took place before food stamps. If a county participated in the USDA program (not all did) then the welfare office would distribute whatever surplus items they had received. Usually items like lard, powdered milk, bug-infested flour and corn meal. What a healthy feast. But the bureaucrats decided what was good for the recipient. Food stamps enabled poor folks to buy food with reasonable dignity. Yes, you or I might not pick this item or that but we left it up to the poor folks with a few notable exceptions. Food stamps can not be used for alcohol or tobacco, for example. Now, once you start telling people what is or is not good for them you are on a slippery slope. How many people do you have to hire to decide between good and bad foods? And we know how that worked before under the prior USDA surplus foods program. How do you feel about Mayor Blumberg’s large soda prohibition? Even I have a little trouble with the Big Brother aspects of the authors’ rationale. And what public purpose is served by disclosure of how much food stamp revenue particular vendors receive? They aren’t politicians receiving political contributions. They are selling food at the same price they sell to everybody; simply the charge is made on the SNAP debit card instead of a VISA debit card. And we know the total amount the food industry receives–namely, the amount of the food stamp appropriation. Why not have Big Brother gather data individually as to what each person (i.e. all of us) purchases at the grocery store and limit their purchases to “healthy” items? After all it is for the public health and welfare.

  • Kevin Perry

    “Heavy-handed,” “unduly intrusive” and “reeks of overreach.” The Washington Times must have read our minds this morning when they took on the issue of SNAP benefit restrictions.
    Recently the government program – better known as food stamps – has come under fire from “healthy-eating zealots” and the “obesity-obsessed” as yet another misguided way to address the complex problem of obesity and force low-income Americans into leading healthier lifestyles. There are many reasons why these types of efforts, despite their best intentions, simply will not work. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), our government’s very own regulator of food safety and inspection, called these proposals arbitrary and said that they would be overly difficult to enforce. From the Times:
    According to the USDA, there are more than 300,000 food products available on the market, and each year about 12,000 new products find their way on to supermarket shelves. The department observes that “the task of identifying, evaluating, and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial.” Government officials would squabble with manufacturers over whether their food items meet USDA standards. Marketplace winners and losers would be decided by a political process instead of by sovereign consumers.
    Education is at the core of changing behavior, not passing laws and regulations limiting choice. The bottom line is: it’s not the government’s job to grocery shop for our families; it’s ours. Politicians should do what we elected them to do. We don’t tell them how to build roads and bridges using our tax dollars, and they don’t need to tell us what to put in our shopping carts.

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