The U.S. Department of Agriculture should lift the absurd veil of secrecy from a $6.8 billion child nutrition program.
Not only would transparency deter fraud and abuse, it could also advance the Obama administration's goal of alleviating food deserts.
A lack of grocery stores in some low-income areas deprives 13.5 million Americans of access to affordable, healthful food, according to an analysis of census tracts.
In Lexington, 5 percent to 7.5 percent of low-income residents live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, the benchmark is 10 miles from home to a supermarket or large grocery.
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Nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood has lifelong effects, which is the rationale behind the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children or WIC, which provides access to food and infant formula.
In Kentucky, 112,000 pregnant women and young children participate in the program that also encourages breast feeding and provides nutrition education, at a cost to taxpayers of $83 million a year.
The about 750 stores that are approved WIC vendors in Kentucky can be penalized for such things as overcharging, selling expired food, not stocking the required food (including fresh fruit) and letting customers use WIC cards or vouchers to buy cigarettes and alcohol.
The Herald-Leader's John Cheves was able to ferret out that at least 16 Kentucky stores appeared to get WIC disqualification letters during 2014 for a variety of violations.
But because of the silly rule, the stores' names and locations are secret. The justification is unclear since participating stores post WIC signs in their windows; also, all kinds of government inspections and penalties levied against other businesses are public records.
The USDA, which oversees WIC, is revisiting the regulation. While protecting some proprietary information may be justified, the blackout on information about disqualifications is counter to the public interest.
Consider, in 2011, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled an online food desert locator he said it would "help policy makers, community planners, researchers and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy and affordable food more readily available to residents."
Knowing where stores are falling short of WIC's mission would also help those working to expand access to healthful food.
Cheves reported that at a WIC-approved vendor on Red Mile Road in Lexington the fresh offerings consisted of two green tomatoes, two mesh bags of lemons, a single spotted bunch of bananas and eight cans of Dole pineapple slices. Milk cost $4.49 a gallon, 25 percent more than the average consumer price at the time.
The store was in compliance with WIC rules, which probably says something about the violators. (It also helps explain why a working poor parent who lacks transportation or gas money, but has hungry kids, would settle for feeding them hot dogs and a bag of Doritos.)
Federal investigations in other states found that businesses that should have been disqualified for violations continued to collect millions of dollars from WIC.
But as long as the data are secret, there's no way for the public to know if there are problems in their neighborhood stores.
In 2008, USDA proposed lifting the veil of secrecy but backed off, presumably because of pressure from business.
USDA nutrition programs should be a driving force in combating the epidemic of diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The taxpayers who support them have a right to know how those programs are working.