Why is the National Newspaper Association interested in the farm bill?

It has nothing to do with food and everything to do with the freedom of information.

The farm bill. It’s the piece of legislation that governs pretty much everything farm- and food-related in the country, and it’s set to expire on September 30. Though the partisan tangle over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits has garnered more major headlines of late than you’d expect for such an unwieldy piece of policy, it seems unlikely that Congress will have the next iteration ready to go in time for the deadline. Meanwhile, interest groups from both sides of the aisle have been lobbying agriculture committee members to consider their last-minute revisions.  

This week, a new, slightly unusual crowd entered the fray: The National Newspaper Association. In a letter to ranking Senators Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, the group implored Congress to get rid of a little-known provision that would block reporters from accessing data that reveal how much money retailers earn from sales via SNAP.

“[Retailers’] concerns should not override the public interest in scrutiny of such an important taxpayer-funded program.”
Since, 2010, South Dakota’s Argus Leader has been waging a battle against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, later, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) for access to this information. The newspaper has won in multiple court battles, but the case has yet to resolve itself. Most recently, FMI, a trade association that represents retailers and wholesalers, began defending the case after USDA declined to take it any further, and in August appealed to the Supreme Court to intervene.

Each side’s argument is pretty simple: The Argus Leader has argued that a store’s income from SNAP should be public information under the guiding principle that all government spending should be shared with the public, unless it compromises someone’s safety or ability to compete in business. The USDA, and later FMI, have argued that sharing SNAP sales data would cause competitive harm to the retailers involved. I wrote about it all in more detail last month.

At this point, if the Supreme Court declines to intervene, the Argus Leader will gain access to the data it’s been asking for. (With potentially significant caveats—a separate, related lawsuit has commenced in Texas, and a judge there has placed a stay on the release of retailer SNAP data until it’s resolved. The grocery industry could pursue state-by-state decisions in this way as a kind of public information whack-a-mole.)

This story is far from over.
The recent twist—the thing that’s got the National Newspaper Association involved—is that Congress might intervene and protect the retailers’ data regardless of what happens with the judicial process. There are provisions in both the Agriculture Appropriations Bill and one version of the farm bill that would keep retailer sales data hidden.

“Retailers may have other reasons for wishing to shield the data, but such concerns should not override the public interest in scrutiny of such an important taxpayer-funded program,” writes Susan Rowell, president of the association. Rowell goes on to criticize what she calls the “piecemeal erosion” of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) each year from “individual interests hoping to gain their own particular shelters for records.”

This story is far from over. The conference committee has not released its final version of the farm bill, nor has the appropriations bill crossed the finish line. Even if they both decline to include the language in the pending legislation, the Supreme Court could rule against the Leader.

And then we’d never know who makes the most off the $70-billion food stamps program.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.