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What do food stamps buy?

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 do so 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 Assn. 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 Assn. 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 Assn. of Health Care Journalists.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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