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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.

‘Anecdotal info’

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.

The government is “keenly interested” in what types of food the $80 billion purchases, but has not made an effort to track it.

USDA is preparing to update a study of the feasibility of capturing detailed purchase data from over 200,000 retailers that redeem SNAP benefits, and continue to explore other options to gather information on SNAP participants’ diet quality,” Jimmie Turner, a spokesman for the USDA, said by email.

The demand for the information has been festering for years.

Last year, the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, sued the USDA for the information, and the USDA has fought fiercely in court filings that have stretched through this month to prevent disclosure.

This month, the public-interest group Eat Drink Politics called on the USDA to release the totals by retailer and for Congress to require the USDA to determine what types of food are purchased.

In a few cases, states have released subsets of the information, triggering the anger of the USDA.

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