Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s staff are quietly bending food stamps rules to accommodate purveyors of sugary snacks and helping companies conceal how much they make from the program, recently published emails indicate.
Much of the insider lobbying at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) falls to a pair of Perdue hires who worked for the trade organizations they now regulate so recently and for so long that they had to get special ethics waivers to hold their new government jobs. Maggie Lyons, now chief of staff to the undersecretary overseeing food stamps, was a lobbyist for the National Grocers Association (NGA) for three years before taking her current job in 2017. Kailee Tkacz, a colleague of Lyons’ at NGA for years and also an alum of trade groups for corn syrup makers and junk food sellers, now advises the USDA’s Office of Congressional Regulations.
When Perdue’s team at USDA signaled it was open to letting states tinker with the rules governing how Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries can spend their meager food stamps last winter, Tkacz and Lyons were beset with emails and calls from their former colleagues in the industry. Emails obtained by Sludge show Lyons looking to soothe alarm from the American Beverage Association about a policy change that could cut into soda profits. Earlier that year, former colleagues from the NGA reached out to Tkacz in hopes of an introduction to Perdue. After USDA rejected Maine’s proposal for a “junk food ban” in the SNAP program — a longtime quest from conservatives that would micromanage low-income families’ shopping carts and, in most proposals, restrict their access to spices for flavoring food as well as to unhealthy processed snacks — NGA reps again contacted Tkacz to express gratitude for the decision.
The revolving door is not new, and there’s little unusual on its face about such close and cordial interactions between public stewards and private profit-protectors. But while it’s been normalized, the lobbying circuit still has a corrosive effect on public policy. Nutritionist Marion Nestle told Sludge the Perdue team has upped “the level of complicity” between public policy employees and private industry. Union of Concerned Scientists food analyst Karen Perry Stillerman called the correspondence “unseemly” and said “a really cozy relationship [between the lobbyists and the lobbied] doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the public.”
The industry’s opposition to cart-policing ideological campaigns like the junk food ban proposal is one thing. But it’s also used its special access to Perdue in more obviously harmful ways — in particular to help keep you from seeing how much money various food retailers make from accepting SNAP transactions.
The money-hiding chapter begins long before Perdue became Secretary of Agriculture. Reporters in South Dakota asked the USDA for data on retailers’ take from SNAP in 2010. The USDA denied the request and ignored a follow-up, forcing the reporters to sue. The case spent more than half a decade in court before an appeals panel found the agency’s arguments for keeping the retailer profits data secret were bogus. (The technical ins-and-outs of the case could cure insomnia, but New Food Economy runs them down in detail here for the curious.)
At that point, the USDA gave up fighting. Staffers put the somehow-controversial figures on how much of your money goes to which giant food conglomerates onto a disk and waited for a reporter to come grab it. But then a food retailer trade group asked the court to let it take USDA’s place in arguing against the disclosure. Determined to exhaust its full appeals, the group successfully persuaded newly-minted Justice Neil Gorsuch to put the case on hold again while the Supreme Court decides whether or not to weigh in.
The emails Sludge obtained suggest that the USDA is still interested in barring the release of the files, and helping the NGA keep its members’ share of SNAP profits secret. A senior NGA employee reached out to USDA to set up a meeting about the legal strategy it and its peers were pursuing in the case in spring 2018, as New Food Economy reported Monday. Though the agency “really isn’t supposed to have a dog in the fight” over the past data on SNAP money, the site wrote, its consultations with NGA happened at the same time Republicans in charge of Congress were drafting legislation to permanently hide such figures from the public.
It’s hard to parse what would make this issue so pressing for retailers. To whatever extent a high volume of SNAP spending in a given location is cynically viewed as a marker of undesirable clientele, retailers and investors already have every opportunity to make such value judgments about low-income shoppers from other publicly-available figures. Perhaps it is simple embarrassment; after a Walmart executive blurted out the company’s $13 billion annual haul from SNAP shoppers at a party recently, the company took a bit (more) flack in the press.
But the flurry of activity around the data, and the high cost of siccing multiple teams of lawyers from the public and private sectors on keeping the numbers hidden for years, suggest that somebody somewhere is worried about what you might do with this knowledge if you could get it. It might be they’re worried about the answer to the question that initially sparked the Argus Leader reporters to ask USDA for the numbers eight years ago: How much SNAP money is going to five-and-dimes and gas station convenience stores these days, as grocery companies leave large swathes of struggling inner-city communities out of their development plans?