Military.com

Commissary Won't Release Food Stamp Info Sold to Firms, Attorney Says

The commissary at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Army/Nell King.)
The commissary at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Army/Nell King.)

The Pentagon agency that oversees commissary stores won't release information about food stamp usage among troops in part because it sells the data to private companies, its top attorney said.

In an Aug. 7 letter to Military.com, Ralph Tremaglio, general counsel for the Defense Commissary Agency, denied a two-year-old Freedom of Information Act request for information on shoppers who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

In the letter of denial, Tremaglio said demographic information on troops, veterans and family members gleaned from ID cards scanned at commissaries is sold by the agency to three market research firms, including Nielsen Holdings Plc, iMPOWER and IRi, and as a result can be withheld from public release under FOIA.

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"The information you have requested is being withheld under Title 5, U.S. Code, Section 552 Exemption b(3) which allows the withholding of information prohibited from disclosure by federal statute," he wrote.

"More specifically, Title 10, U.S. Code Section 2486(h) provides that the Secretary of Defense may limit the release of any information that is collected through the use of electronic scanners in commissary stores and enter into a contract to sell that information," he added. "There are currently three such contracts in place with commercial companies (AC Neilsen [sic], Impower IT and IRI) from whom the information may be purchased."

When asked for comment, Kevin Robinson, a commissary spokesman, said the agency sells "product movement and sales info" -- not information on shoppers -- and that it now has two such contracts -- not three.

"The information sold to AC Neilsen [sic] and IRI is product movement and sales info. None of the customer demographic information obtained through the scanning of patron ID cards is sold or shared ... WIC/SNAP information is not sold as part of the contract," Robinson said via email. "Also, to clarify, there are only two contracts now in place, the AC Neilsen [sic] contract and the IRI contract."

It remains unclear why the FOIA request for information about the WIC and SNAP programs was denied -- and under such statutes.

Commissary users are required to scan their military ID cards before all transactions. The DoD ID Card number gathered from the barcode is then checked against the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) database to make sure the person using it is an authorized shopper.

When that check happens, DeCA gathers demographic information from DEERS, including ID number, rank, military status, branch, age, household size and the zip code of residence and duty station, according to a commissary fact sheet.

That data is "stored behind DeCA's 'firewall,' which has physical, administrative and technical controls in place," the fact sheet says, and is "secured in an encrypted database at DeCA Headquarters; it will not be stored at any of our commissaries or visible to store-level employees."

Robinson also said the fact sheet is wrong.

"This is partially incorrect," he said in an email. "The Defense Commissary Agency does not maintain any demographic data on patrons. The Agency scans only the DoD ID number from the ID card. Any customer demographic information, such as that requested in your Freedom of Information Act request, is obtained by querying the Defense Manpower Data Center for specific information."

Unable to Opt Out

If the customer demographic data is sold, it is done so without customers' knowledge, according to watchdogs familiar with the issue.

Customers don't have the opportunity to opt in -- or out -- of such a program, since scanning the ID card is required to shop.

"I think the department owes it to families to be transparent and open about this practice and give families a chance to opt out if they so choose," said Eileen Huck, a government relations official with the National Military Family Association.

Military.com requested the information to write about the demographics of commissary shoppers who use the SNAP program -- not to identify individual users -- to raise awareness about hunger issues in the armed forces.

A 2014 news release claimed that information about who uses SNAP and WIC would be available through the ID card data.

Demographic data compiled from scanned ID cards is regularly used by government officials in reports on the commissary. For example, a commissary report published by the Defense Department in March 2016 used the ID card demographic information to measure commissary users by status and paygrade.

Officials with organizations that focus on hunger issues say this data is important to the public policy discussion around hunger among military families.

"This data is important so that we can have a better understanding of how many currently serving military families are using the SNAP benefit at the commissaries, in part because there's a lack of details," said Josh Protas, a lobbyist with Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

"Trying to piece together some better understanding about who is getting assistance from programs like SNAP helps us to understand who is falling through the cracks," he said.

Military.com plans to appeal the denial of the original FOIA request.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.