What a Supreme Court Decision Might Mean for the SNAP Data Debate

In a country as wealthy as the United States, no one should struggle to feed themselves or their family. But roughly 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure, including 12 million children. Having an efficient and robust government food assistance program is critical in the face of this reality, and currently over 38 million people use the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Commonly known as “food stamps,” SNAP beneficiaries actually use a pre-loaded card to buy food at participating retailers, including some of the biggest grocery store chains in America. As you might imagine, this generates a lot of data about what people are purchasing. And just about anywhere there’s data, there’s debate about who should have access to it.

Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media

SNAP data is at the center a case the Supreme Court is mulling over right now. In 2011, The Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls, SD filed a Freedom of Information Act request to access the SNAP sales information from grocery stores, arguing that since taxpayer money funds SNAP, the public has a right to know how much money companies are making off of SNAP sales.

The USDA refused to release this information, saying that it was given to them in confidence by the stores. After two lower court rulings favoring The Argus Leader, the USDA relented in 2017, but the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry group representing roughly 45,000 grocery stores and pharmacies, stepped in and asked first the U.S. Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court court decisions. FMI has argued that store-level SNAP sales information should be considered trade secrets and confidential financial sales data. A ruling in the case is expected before the Supreme Court takes its recess in June.

What’s At Stake?

As with most disputes about data, the story is a little more complicated than either party indicates. On the one hand, making store-level SNAP data widely available could help smaller retailers reach customers who normally shop at large chains via better coupon deals based on the SNAP information. Right now, large companies simply know a lot more about what people are buying with SNAP dollars than their competitors due to things like robust loyalty programs. Some have suggested that opening up the SNAP black box could also allow groups and stores invested in improving health outcomes to offer better incentives SNAP shoppers.

At the same time, critics worry that making data from low-income shoppers more accessible would simply be another instance of the kinds of privacy infringements that people on government programs are more vulnerable to than those who are not. If SNAP shoppers’ purchasing data is made available, why shouldn’t all shoppers’ purchasing data be exposed?

What’s Next?

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the question over data that is effectively shared by the government and private corporations will remain intriguing, particularly where issues like privacy and public health concerns intersect. If data can be made accessible in a way that ensures consumer protections while promoting greater competition from health-conscious, innovative firms, everyone might benefit.

Ben Thelen
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.