Why did a top USDA official meet with an industry lobbyist about keeping food stamps data secret?

The agency stopped defending its decision to hide retailers' SNAP profits more than a year ago. But with a Supreme Court case potentially on the horizon, new emails show it hasn't cut ties with industry on the issue.

Every year, the U.S. government spends nearly $70 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. That’s a great thing for Americans who struggle with food insecurity. But the question remains: Who else benefits? Try to answer that question, and things get complicated quickly.

For years, journalists, anti-hunger advocates, and others have tried to determine which retailers receive the bulk of SNAP’s economic benefit. Details leak out in dribs and drabs—in 2013, for instance, Walmart confirmed it made $13 billion that year from SNAP after its vice president said as much at a private dinner party. Yet to this day, the public still hasn’t had a chance to see the full picture.

Since 2010, journalists at South Dakota’s Argus Leader have been fighting to obtain data that discloses the amount of money retailers like Walmart and Target receive via SNAP. The newspaper launched a lawsuit in 2011 after its Freedom of Information Act request was denied and the appeal went unanswered. A protracted legal standoff followed, a long and twisted saga which led to a three-judge panel on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately siding with the Leader. That most recent ruling has been referred to the Supreme Court—a development that leaves the case in legal limbo.

USDA really isn’t supposed to have a dog in the fight.
Now, details from a new public records request filed by Alex Kotch for Sludge reveal that a representative from the grocery industry planned a phone call with a USDA official as recently as spring of 2018 to discuss the case. In a note dated March 16, Christopher Jones, Vice President of Government Relations and Council for the National Grocers Association (NGA), asked Brandon Lipps, administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, for a phone call. “I’d like to give you my read on the Argus Leader case and our potential strategy going forward on this issue,” he wrote. Lipps responded, asking whether Jones was “good with a call” or “wanting to come in.”

Here’s the thing: USDA is not defending the case anymore, and it really isn’t supposed to have a dog in the fight. When USDA lost its case in district court in 2016, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry group that represents grocery retailers, intervened and took on the case. It was FMI that intervened again last year, appealing the Leader’s case to the Supreme Court. By declining to appeal on its own, USDA seemed to signal that it accepted the court’s decision that the records should be released. Why then, are high-level USDA officials taking meetings with lobbyists to discuss cases they’re no longer part of?

Christopher Jones, the NGA representative who reached out to Lipps, said in an email to The New Food Economy that he reached out to USDA after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the case. The proposed meeting occurred between the conclusion of oral arguments and the court’s final ruling, which was released in May.

“Clearly both the government and industry are trying to hide something here.”
While the case is stalled, industry groups have been trying to persuade Congress to keep SNAP sales figures hidden via provisions in the farm bill and the agriculture appropriations bill. Jones says he scheduled the call with Lipps to share his impressions of the proceedings and explain that NGA would be “pursuing a legislative strategy to protect SNAP data.” When asked why the USDA might be interested in NGA’s strategy, he responded that the call was “a courtesy more than anything.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment on the call, so we don’t know why Lipps was interested in hearing about the industry’s take on a case the agency’s no longer involved with. But Cory Myers, news director at the Argus Leader, seems to believe the exchange indicates the agency is taking sides.

“It’s unfortunate that USDA and the industry it supposedly regulates are colluding to hide tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer spending,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Our lawsuit has always been about promoting transparency in one of the most important safety-net programs our nation has for the poor, disabled and elderly. Clearly both the government and industry are trying to hide something here.”

Collusion or no, the USDA certainly has some explaining to do.

Also tagged


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.