Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Should data on SNAP sales by retailer be available for analysis?

The U.S. Supreme Court this week scheduled a hearing on April 22 about an important case for policies to address the adequacy of food retail access, especially for low-income communities.

Knowing the amount of SNAP sales by retailer would help for (1) identifying "food deserts," (2) understanding how SNAP contributes to healthy food environments, and (3) determining whether policy innovations or changes in retail practices could further increase the beneficial impact of SNAP.

In 2011, the South Dakota Argus Leader asked USDA to share such data. Retailers objected to the sharing, and USDA declined to approve the release under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules, so the case went to court. Eventually, appeals courts ruled for the Argus Leader. USDA would have released the data, but the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the leading food retail trade association, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. See SCOTUSblog for more on this history and links to the legal documents.

The Argus Leader yesterday noted that the implications go beyond food policy: "The outcome of Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media could have broad implications for what the federal government can keep secret under the Freedom of Information Act."

An FMI statement last month said, "It is a critically important case that will clarify the protections from disclosure applicable to confidential business information that private parties submit to the government." But is this really confidential information submitted by private parties? USDA spends public money for a public purpose, and the Argus Leader just is asking USDA to share its own spending data, much as USDA already must share information about who receives farm subsidies, or what big businesses receive federal contracts. Businesses receiving government money sometimes wish the amounts would be secret, but it makes sense in a democracy that these amounts should be public.

Supporters of the FMI position say retailers will suffer competitive harm if the data are released. For example, in recorded Congressional debate (time 4:31:00) last year, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) expresses concern about "food deserts" and says the data release would "poach customers and revenues." First, retailers already have plenty of commercial intelligence about each others' business. Second, more importantly, is Rep. Newhouse's argument internally inconsistent? The only way a competitor could poach customers and revenues is by adding retail locations in the vicinity, which improves food retail access. For a retailer in a particular location, if competitors see some data and decide to stay away, then the business result is a competitive benefit not a harm.

If these data were public, we would all understand the role of SNAP in local food retail environments better. If FMI cares about the healthfulness and adequacy of the local food retail environment for low-income Americans, I would encourage the trade association to drop this appeal. This lawsuit does not serve the public interest.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The long road to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and the long road afterward

Nutrition Today (.pdf) has published a nice history of the initial struggle to design and pass ... and the later struggle to implement ... the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Colin Schwartz and Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) summarize considerable familiar material, but also provide insight into less widely understood details. For example, while this legislation usually is described purely as an Obama administration victory, the authors highlight much of the preparation that already took place during the W. Bush administration. The continuing policy arguments after passage also are notable. It is true with any legislation, and especially true for this law, that the road to administrative rule-making and implementation may be as important as the initial passage of the bill.

I will add this article to the syllabus for my U.S. food policy class (for a week on child nutrition programs).

Schwartz and Wootan (2019). [Click for larger image].