Information on how many food stamp dollars are redeemed at which stores has long been deemed a “trade secret” by a U.S. Department of Agriculture that critics believe views large retailers, not taxpayers, as its clientele.
But a federal court battle has forced USDA to re-evaluate its stance, and it is doing so by asking retailers during a regulatory comment period if they view food stamp data as a trade secret.
Given that candy and soda manufacturers and junk-food sellers like 7-Eleven have lobbied to make the food stamp program more lenient and thus more lucrative, USDA's question might be viewed as an opportunity to support keeping the data under wraps.
And so far, the major retailers and their trade associations have remained silent in the month-long comment period that opened last week.
But the regulatory comment period has turned into a soapbox for clerks at small markets who said they are tired of selling unhealthy food to people, whom they say often make separate cash transactions for cigarettes and alcohol.
“If it is a government program, and not affecting the safety or security of the American people, then the data should be provided for public review,” wrote John Grady, whose family runs the Area 66 gas station in Yucca, Ariz.
“I do not have a problem showing my SNAP sales,” wrote Michael Gengo, owner of New Orleans' Keller Market.
“I think the public should be aware of the SNAP benefit spending. We get people in here that buy just candy and soda,” wrote Annette Griffith, owner of the Sullivan, Missouri store Lil Something 4 Everyone.
These are the people on the front lines of the food stamp program. They know more than anyone else, certainly more than the 100 federal inspectors assigned to monitor the estimated 250,000 stores that accept food stamps.
“Retailers (especially corner grocery stores) should be made accountable for the way they redeem SNAP benefits ... I have witnessed first-hand drug addicts redeeming $100 of SNAP benefits in exchange for $50 cash. In my neighborhood that is the going rate,” wrote Rhonda Hawkins of Baltimore.
Even though "it will hurt financially," retailer Jamie Bowman wrote, "I believe that the regulations for products used for SNAP should be tightened. I have customers come in and buy candy, sodas, and energy drinks with their EBT/SNAP cards. I personally don't believe that that should be allowed since it is not considered a necessity. ... I do think that the card holders should be drug tested." Bowman's hometown was not listed in the comment.
Food stamps can be spent on essentially any food item with a bar code, despite the N in the program's name, which stands for Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program.
The $80 billion spent by annually by the federal government on food stamps creates cash flow for big corporate grocers, but many workers ringing up those transactions, including owners of small stores, have grown frustrated, especially after the government recently started billing them for the electronic equipment used to process sales.
Food stamp recipients themselves also spoke up about abuses that have been enabled in part by secrecy.
"As a SNAP recipient, I am opposed to a system that allows individuals to purchase unlimited amounts of candy, soda pop and items that that the government deems 'FOOD.' ... The individuals who create the SNAP regulations need to have a greater grasp of the entire program. This is a serious weakness," wrote Anna Angeline Angel Bakos of Michigan.
Nutritionists also commented with their own long-simmering discontent.
“As a nutritionist for [the Women, Infants and Children] program, I am appalled by what SNAP recipients are able to purchase with their benefits. Here are some examples: bottled water, chips, candy, SODA POP!” wrote Diana de la Mer of Columbus, Ohio.
The WIC program also provides federally-funded food, but limits it to healthy staples.
"I would like to know more about who is profiting from SNAP and the types of foods they promote. I have worked as a public health dietitian for over 30 years, many years with SNAP recipients. I find that SNAP funds are spent on unhealthy food choices, which is compounding our nation's health problems," wrote Lisa Hill. No information was included in the comments on Hill's employer or location.
"I suspect the retailers are part of the problem. We need to figure this out so that all of our citizens have access to healthy food choices," Hill said.
The changes under consideration would only reveal the total amount of food stamps spent per store.
That's enough to illuminate how many food stamps were spent at places likely to carry little if any nutritious food at all, such as gas stations, and the extent to which large corporations like Walmart profit on the taxpayer-funded program.
They would also show how many food stamps were spent at stores that, as one commenter put it, “price gouge,” because virtually all of their customers are paying in what is essentially Monopoly money with little connection to the value of a U.S. dollar.
They’d also make it easier to spot fraud. If a small store with few items on its shelves reported doing millions in SNAP sales, that could be a red flag for a store that rings up a sale in SNAP dollars, accepting reimbursement from the government, and gives the “customer” half the value in cash.
But the proposal would not release data on which products or types or products were bought using food stamps, even though that data is readily available, thanks to universal bar codes.
And some retailers said focusing on the retailer still left out a focus on the consumer.
“I think it is only fair that if I have to disclose my information. ... The names of all individuals receiving benefits should be published and the monthly or annual benefits they receive.
"The farm program does this and it adds to the transparency of government. It is my belief that this would also curtail fraudulent activity of people getting benefits that should not,” said Charles Rose of Rose General Stores in Iuka, Ill.
“If retailers’ SNAP transparency impedes their business, that's a problem they have to deal with internally. Taxpayers support SNAP to aid their fellow citizens in need, not to aid SNAP authorized retailers make their bottom line,” wrote Bri Kapellas. No further information about Kapellas was included in the comments.
“If retailers want their business records to be private, then they can choose to not receive taxpayer funds,” another, anonymous, commenter wrote.