Congressman wants oversight of food stamp program

Responding to complaints that food stamps are widely spent on junk food and that the Agriculture Department makes no attempt to even track, much less restrict, what kind of food is being purchased, a Pennsylvania Republican will introduce legislation Friday called the SNAP Transparency Act to create an online, searchable database that uses bar codes to break down how many taxpayer dollars in food stamps are spent on each individual product, from Kit Kat bars to whole milk.

“It’s downright irresponsible that such a massive government program — which cost the taxpayers $80 billion in 2012 alone — is subject to virtually no oversight,” Rep. Tom Marino, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “There’s no sense in establishing parameters or guidelines for these programs if we do not have a system in place to ensure the program is operating efficiently and within its boundaries.”

Cards distributed through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, can be used to purchase anything with an ingredients label except alcohol, from candy and soda to steak and lobster.

Many corner stores approved to accept food stamps do not even sell any healthy offerings, making it impossible for their food stamp customers to get healthy food, The Washington Times found.

Obesity is a persistent problem in low-income communities, with 42 percent of residents of the District’s poorest ward overweight.

Yet, as The Times reported last year, the Agriculture Department refuses to release information on how much business individual stores do in food stamps — going so far as threatening jail time for those who reveal it — even though it acknowledges that 8 percent of food stamp dollars taken to inner-city corner stores are illegally converted to cash, which such data could help illuminate.

And even the government itself has no idea what kind of foods the stamps buy, even though the combination of electronic benefit cards and universal product codes make tracking it entirely feasible.

That makes it impossible to evaluate funding and other policy changes to the program, because it’s unclear whether the program is meeting its goals, according to nutrition advocates.

“Several potential reform plans currently exist, but it is difficult to have an informed discussion when we don’t know exactly what SNAP benefits are being spent on,” the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said.

The food stamp program costs $80 billion a year, but as lawmakers renew it with each farm bill, the lack of knowledge about what kinds of foods are bought, and at what prices, makes it impossible to make informed judgments about its efficacy.

The knowledge void has allowed candy, soda and convenience store companies to lobby vigorously to keep their items eligible for the program, arguing that they are rarely purchased with food stamps.

Susan Smith of the National Confectioners Association, a candy trade group, last year dismissed assertions that food stamp recipients commonly buy candy and soda as “anecdotal info,” while declining to call for the collection of statistics.

Mr. Marino’s office said if the numbers are made public, the candy and soda makers who lobby against restricting the food stamp program could well be vindicated — or proven wrong.

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