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Uncovering the secrets of food stamps

  • This artwork by Mark Weber relates to soaring food prices.

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.


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