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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.