The Food Improvement Act of 2018, or farm bill, that Congress passed with strong bipartisan support and that the president is expected to sign today reaffirms that the public should see how much money retailers earn from participating in the federal nutrition assistance program.
The victory for transparency — though it may be short-lived — comes on the heels of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations calling for the removal of language in the House version of the bill (HR 2) that would have kept this information hidden from the public.
Access to this data helps journalists and the public better understand how the taxpayer-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is implemented without revealing information about the individuals who receive benefits. For example, a slice of the data informed The New Food Economy and The Intercept’s reporting that showed Amazon’s workforce was disproportionately reliant on SNAP benefits in at least five states. Under pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) following this revelation, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos announced earlier this year that he would increase employee wages.
Stories such as this one illustrate the public benefit of releasing retailers’ SNAP revenue data, and underscore the importance of efforts to seek access to this information. For example, in a decade-long legal battle against the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food Marketing Institute, the Argus Leader has argued that this information should be made public under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Both the USDA and FMI have said that sharing the data would cause competitive harm to retailers, but the courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, have repeatedly rejected that notion. The USDA declined to appeal the 8th Circuit decision, but FMI has appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is still pending, and lobbied for Congress to include the confidentiality provision in the farm bill.
The win in Congress could be short-lived, however. Grocers have vowed to continue to fight disclosure of this information, and the Supreme Court may eventually weigh in.
The provision proposed in and later removed from Section 4026 of the initial House bill would have exempted from disclosure under FOIA any information that was collected about a “specific retail food store, wholesale food concern, person, or other entity” participating in SNAP, along with “any investigative methodology or criteria used for program integrity purposes.” The Reporters Committee and National Newspaper Association, along with other members of News Media for Open Government, became aware of the provision earlier this year, and worked with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to speak out against it. We are grateful for their continued efforts to defend transparency.
In rejecting the confidentiality provision, Congress agreed with the court decisions so far that have concluded that the public should be able to see annual revenues that retailers receive through the SNAP program, and that disclosing such information does not harm retailers. In omitting this harmful provision from the final farm bill, Congress has avoided cherry picking an exemption that would have diminished the intended purpose of FOIA: ensuring the public is better informed about what its government is doing.