How much of Walmart’s revenue comes from its shoppers’ food stamps? The store isn’t required to say. But a January Court of Appeals ruling could change that. If the unanimous decision by the 8th Circuit’s panel of three judges holds, the United States Department of Agriculture will be required to release data indicating exactly how much of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s $80 billion in annual sales is paid to specific retailers and individual stores.
The Argus Leader, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, paper, brought suit against the USDA in 2011 after the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking data on USDA’s annual payments to grocers, gas stations, and other retailers in the SNAP program. The USDA routinely tracks the payments, which retailers process as they do credit cards: The stores accept recipients’ Electronic Benefits Transfer cards as payment, and in turn the government pays the stores.
Stephanie Bengford, the US attorney representing the USDA, argued that under federal code, specific details about SNAP revenue should be considered private business information. In the appeals court opinion, Chief Judge William Jay Riley held that the USDA had misread the code, and issued a decision in favor of the Argus. The agency has until April 28—90 days from the January decision—to file an appeal with the US Supreme Court. If the USDA does not file an appeal, the case will likely return to the District Court.
The Argus case follows a 2010 incident in which Massachusetts officials threatened reporter Michael Morisy of Muckrock.com with fines or imprisonment for publishing SNAP retailer sales data obtained from the state’s welfare agency under a basic information request. The state released the data, but when Morisy mapped out sales by store and published it online, the agency said the information had been released erroneously and demanded that he remove it, citing the same statute on which the USDA centered itsArgus case.