Influence Analytics: Grocers want to keep food stamp data secret

Sign in store window stating "we accept food stamp benefits" over a picture of eggs, a loaf of sliced bread and a carton of milk
Some major retailers that accept food stamp benefits would rather taxpayers not know how their money is being spent. (Photo credit: Flickr user Creative Commons license.

Retail stores organized letter writing campaigns and public health and hunger advocates also made their voices heard about a proposal to make data publicly available on how Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) — aka “food stamp” — dollars are spent in the nation’s stores.

The data would be aggregated by store, without revealing information on how individuals spend their benefits. Comments were due by Monday.

More than 500 people and organizations wrote in to lodge their opinions on the request for information issued by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), according to Docket Wrench, following a court decision that ruled in favor of a Freedom of Information Act request from a South Dakota newspaper, the Argus Leader, for the information.

Retailers overall oppose the release of such data, arguing that it could give competitors an unfair advantage. More than 40 employees of IGA Supermarkets signed on to a form letter that said, “We are a private company and this type of disclosure would release our privileged company sales information to the general public and that any release of such information should be left to our discretion.”

Kmart also objected, voicing worries that making SNAP data public might “scare off” shoppers who would draw conclusions about the clientele. “Some members of the public may incorrectly assume that more crimes take place in ‘food stamp’ stores or incorrectly assume that certain racial or ethnic groups are likely to shop there.”

Among other retail companies and organizations opposing public release of food stamp data were the National Grocers Association and the Food Marketing Institute.

On the other side, public health, hunger advocates and journalists generally support release of these data. The NYC Coalition Against Hunger, for example, writes that the information is “essential to understand and manage our food systems. There have long been links between poverty and obesity, and lack of affordable, nutritious food. If we know what people are purchasing with their EBT cards and where, we can link subsidies to healthy food to make it affordable and more accessible…”

And the Association of Health Journalists says such data can help reporters inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent. The group points out that the secrecy surrounding SNAP benefits runs contrary to public disclosure of other safety net programs, such as Medicare and Medicate, which “routinely identify the hospitals and clinics that receive government dollars and list how much each is paid for the services provided.”

Comments also included activists such as Daniel Bowman Simon, who wrote that the public would benefit from increased competition fostered by release of the data, “The public interest of the more than 46 million hungry Americans receiving SNAP could benefit from the increased competition between businesses.”

The Argus Leader, based in Sioux Falls, requested SNAP retail data in 2011, hoping to document whether or not small grocers and convenience stores were responsible for the bulk of SNAP fraud. The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied the request and a District Court agreed with the agency. But then, in January, a federal appellate court ruled in the newspaper’s favor.

The SNAP program, one of the main ways the government supports needy families, cost taxpayers more than $76 billion in 2013 alone. Funding levels for the program are a source of contention between Democrats and Republicans, with the GOP pushing for billions of dollars of cuts. The most recent farm bill, approved in February, included $8 billion in cuts over the next decade.

Congress. This year members of Congress introduced two bills relating to SNAP. The Food Stamp Prevention and Accountability Act, sponsored by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would require SNAP beneficiaries to display photo identification when purchasing items. Rep. Matthew Cartwright, D-Pa., has introduced the Vegetables Are Really Important Eating Tools for You (VARIETY) Act of 2014, designed to encourage SNAP recipients to purchase health food. Neither bill has gotten a hearing. (Source: Open Congress.)

Who talks about it. Democrats talk about “food stamps” on the floor more than Republicans do. (Source: Capitol Words.)

Most recent mention.  Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, talked about the SNAP program most recently, in a statement in support of her bill, the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act, which she says will save the program money by strengthening workplace standards for government contractor employees. (Sources: Scout, Open Congress.)