By LACEY LOUWAGIE
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (CN) – After a five-year battle in the federal and appellate court systems, a South Dakota newspaper scored a victory for press access on Wednesday when a federal judge ruled in its favor and ordered the United States Department of Agriculture to release requested information on food stamps benefit redemption.
The Argus Leader, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, first sued the USDA in 2011 after it denied the newspaper’s request for information related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. In particular, the newspaper was interested in redemption data for program benefits over the past five years.
The USDA objected, claiming exemption 4 in the Freedom of Information Act, which says information that would compromise competition between businesses does not need to be released.
“Frankly, I don't think the FOIA exemption 4 should even come into play when the issue involves a private entity voluntarily doing business with the government, [that is], participating in a government program,” Jon Arneson, who represented the newspaper in the proceedings, said in an email.
U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier, while acknowledging that grocery store competition is fierce, didn’t buy the government’s claims, either.
“Competitors in the grocery industry already use a variety of publicly available information to make decisions,” she wrote in her 14-page opinion. “This information includes a store’s location, layout, pricing, product selection, and customer traffic. … while SNAP information may provide some insight into a store’s overall financial health, the data is a small piece in a much larger picture—disclosure would have a nominal effect on competition in the grocery industry.”
The USDA had also expressed concern that there could be a stigma associated with a store that received heavy usage from SNAP benefits recipients, but Schreier concluded that “this type of harm is not relevant … because it is not a harm caused by a competitor.”
“Although a high volume of SNAP sales might encourage a competitor to enter that geographical market, an equally compelling conclusion is that the competitor may decide to stay away from that market,” Schreier reasoned. “Another equally compelling conclusion is that SNAP sales will have no or little effect on a store’s decision to expand into new sites. … This court finds that the competitive harms associated with stigma are also speculative.”
Schreier concluded by ordering that the requested data be released.
“SNAP sales are merely a part of the store’s total revenue,” she said. “SNAP data does not disclose a store’s profit margins, net income, or net worth. SNAP data also does not disclose how a company bids on government contracts or negotiates with the federal government. In essence, SNAP data is merely a bill from the retailer to the government. As the USDA acknowledges, this type of data is regularly disclosed, and disclosure is consistent with FOIA’s underlying purpose.”
“We are pleased that Judge Schreier agreed with our interpretation that SNAP sales figures are public information,” Cory Myers, interim news director at the Argus Leader said in the newspaper’s article announcing the victory. “At its heart, this is about the fundamental right of taxpayers knowing where their money is spent. This is a federal program, financed by taxpayers, and the retailers who participate in the program do so voluntarily. Beyond that, this information we've sought for the last five years has importance in public policy discussions about food policy and food security in one of the nation’s biggest safety net programs.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the ruling.