Top secret: What food stamps buy
by THE WASHINGTON TIMES
June 25, 2012
Told that the newspaper would not pay, the CFO's office then said that only JP Morgan, to which it contracted out operations, had access to the store totals and that the office had never looked at them. After six months of the local government attempting to extract the information from JP Morgan, the District finally said that releasing the information would be illegal.
States instructed not to tell
Maryland denied The Times' request for data under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the information belonged to the federal government, which instructed states not to release it.
Legislation seemingly designed to protect the industry goes so far as to say that anyone who releases the amount of food stamp dollars paid to a store can be jailed.
Profiting from the poor's taxpayer-funded purchases has become big business for a mix of major companies and corner bodegas, which have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the USDA to keep the money flowing freely.
The National Association of Convenience Store Operators alone spends millions of dollars on lobbying yearly, including $1 million in the first quarter of this year.
In February, 7-Eleven hired a former aide to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, to lobby on "issues related to the general application and approval process for qualified establishments serving SNAP-eligible recipients."
The USDA is notoriously secretive about who receives its money, relying on weak legal reasoning, said Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"USDA hides behind a specious proprietary data argument: The public doesn't want to know internal business decisions or information about specific individuals' finances," he said. "The USDA sees retailers, junk food manufacturers and the big ag lobby as their customers, rather than the taxpayer."
The agency also has no idea what type of food the benefits are buying, even though the combination of universal bar codes and benefit cards makes that entirely feasible.
"It's one of those questions that frankly those of us who have been working on this issue have been struggling with a long time because we need to see the data. The industry looks at it as proprietary. The USDA doesn't track where that money goes," said Beth Johnson, a former Senate Agriculture Committee and USDA staffer who now consults for the Snack Food Association.
She noted that stores have breakdowns of products bought with food stamps but declined to share them with the USDA.
The junk food lobby appreciates the informational void.
Susan Smith of the National Confectioners Association, a candy trade group, dismissed assertions that food stamp recipients commonly buy candy and soda as "anecdotal info," while declining to call for the collection of statistics.