Though it rubs a lot of farmers the wrong way, weve always supported the taxpayers right to know how much money any individual receives from the $124 billion farm program.
For years the Environmental Working Group has posted online a searchable database that details the payments individual farmers and ranchers receive from various farm programs. It obtains the information from the Department of Agriculture under the Freedom of Information Act. While many who receive these payments see the postings as an invasion of their privacy, we think such transparency in the expenditure of taxpayer money is a legitimate public interest.
We were surprised last week to find out that USDA transparency doesnt extend to retail vendors who collectively receive $80 billion each year in payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program what we used to call food stamps.
Where the money goes, and what it buys, is a secret.
Last week, the Washington Times reported that the retail and food lobbies have convinced the USDA that the amount any individual store receives in SNAP payments is proprietary, and as such is exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act.
As Congress completes work on the 2012 Farm Bill, wed like to see provisions added to make public data about all USDA benefit transfers, and the related transactions.
In recent years the SNAP program has expanded as the number of Americans who receive benefits has increased. At the same time, the number and variety of vendors authorized to accept the benefits has grown, as has the list of items approved for purchase.
The program has been touted as a way for those on assistance to afford nutritious food. But in addition to buying fruits, vegetables and other staples, the benefits can be used to purchase birthday cakes, chips, soda and frozen pizza. In fact, the benefits can be used to buy most unheated foodstuffs not sold for onsite consumption. It has been a boon of, literally, untold billions for the snack food and convenience store industries.
Recipients of old had to redeem printed food stamps for their purchases. Todays beneficiaries are issued an electronic benefits transfer card similar to a credit or debit card, making their purchases far less conspicuous.
Coupled with the universal bar code system used by most retailers, the technology that reads the EBT card could also produce a detailed record of the items purchased. Could, but doesnt. Retailers and food companies have lobbied hard to prevent USDA from even collecting such information, leaving the public with no means to gauge the programs effectiveness.
It is unfortunate that these interests have conspired to keep secret where $80 billion of public money is spent and what it buys. We are certain they fear a public outcry over what these details may reveal would lead to greater restrictions on the program.
Taxpayers have a legitimate interest in how their money is spent. That outweighs the privacy concerns of anyone who offers or receives public money in payment.