Monday, September 08, 2014

Sharing store-level SNAP redemptions data

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has requested public comment on the question: Should store-level redemptions data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) be shared with the public?

This blog has long encouraged making public such information, which is useful to low-income communities seeking to improve access to healthy food.

In 2010, I covered the efforts of the MuckRock website to make public similar information. More recently, the Argus Leader pressed USDA to release store-level SNAP redemptions data. Tracie McMillan summarized the controversy in an article for the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and Mother Jones in April.

The public comment period is open through today. Act now if you would like your voice heard. Here is an excerpt from my comment, submitted just now.
Thank you for requesting public comment on the question: should USDA/FNS release store-level redemptions data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?
The answer is “yes.”
This public information is useful
SNAP represents an increasingly large fraction of the U.S. food retail economy, now accounting for more than 10% of all food retail sales (Wilde, 2012). SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, of course, and in recent years the program also has become a critical and central part of the food retail economy overall. To administer this responsibility transparently, in circumstances such as this one where information release is legal and ethical, USDA/FNS should make the information available.
With growing public interest in encouraging access to sufficient healthy food retail in low-income communities, these communities require good information about store-level SNAP redemptions. In a newsmagazine article this year by Tracie McMillan, James Johnson Piett explained the need: “We’re working kind of blind when it comes to empirical data” (McMillan, 2014).
It is legal and ethical to make this information public
The most important point is that SNAP redemptions data are not private confidential business information.

Section 9(c) of 7 U.S.C. 2018(c) prevents USDA/FNS from sharing information that is “received from applicant and participating SNAP retailers.” Similarly, Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows FNS to hold back “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” In both cases the confidential information is obtained by the government from a private party or firm.
Store-level SNAP redemptions data are not private information acquired from a private party or firm in this manner. The redemptions data show what is being paid out by USDA/FNS and the federal government, on behalf of the American taxpayers, who have committed great resources at large expense to this important public purpose. Public expenditures in contracts with businesses that provide goods and services are usually rightly public information. Think about subsidies to farmers, or the value of military contracts to arms manufacturers, or municipal expenditures on roads, all of which are public information. No roads contactor can say, “please keep the amount of this contract private, because that is valuable confidential business information.”
In the comments to FNS that have already been posted to the Federal Register docket, many retailers have expressed concern over the release of their private business information. It is good for FNS to reassure them that private information they have provided will not be released. But -- despite the repetition in the submitted comments -- the basic store-level redemptions data are not private confidential information of this type. These redemptions data should be shared.
In the comments from retailers on the Federal Register docket, retailers express concern about the feared difficulty and cost of new data collection mechanisms to provide these data. These fears are unfounded. If there were any new data collection cost or difficulty, FNS would be entirely correct to decline to collect or release these data. FOIA is about public release of existing data that FNS already collects. Certainly, the state SNAP agencies that administer the program already know the redemption amounts.

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