A few months ago, Andrea Guttierez noticed a subtle, but important change in the Monster energy drinks she bought as an occasional "pick-me-up."
It was the same drink, same logo, same rush delivered from heaps of caffeine and sugar.
The difference was a single word on the label, and that word suddenly made it possible for Guttierez to buy her Monster, along with many other brands of energy drinks, with her Washington State Food Stamp card.
"The labels on the cans used to say the word "supplement," said Guttierez. "Supplements are not allowed in the Food Stamp program, because (the government) wants you to buy food."
That changed when makers of energy drinks like Monster recently followed the lead of other companies like"Red Bull," changing the word "supplement" to the word "nutrition."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, the word "nutrition" made Andrea's Monster a food product. "It was like OK!, well hey, now I can buy this drink on Food Stamps instead of cash. So I just started buying them on Food Stamps."
Lynnwood convenience store owner Dan Kestle called KIRO-7 when he noticed an immediate uptick in sales of energy drinks to young customers using the Washington State "Electronic Balance Transfer" Food Stamp cards.
"People that buy the energy drinks, who typically were buying on EBT cards are younger 20 year-olds, 18-year-olds, and they'll buy the biggest can, with tax out the door, it cost over $5."
Kestle noted that the new nutrition label looked the same as the labels on juice or milk, and Kestle believes those should be among the only products eligible for purchase with Food Stamps. "I just don't think it's worthy of taxpayers paying for this sort of a benefit," he said.
The labels on beverages like Monster and Rock Star rolled out locally over the spring and summer. The manufacturers of energy drinks found a way to fit their products into the latest USDA rules, and open the tap on a massive new market of tax-supported customers. According to the USDA website:
When considering the eligibility of energy drinks, and other branded products, the primary determinant is the type of product label chosen by the manufacturer to conform to Food and Drug Administration guidelines:
- Energy drinks that have a nutrition facts label are eligible foods
- Energy drinks that have a supplement facts label are classified by the FDA as supplements, and are therefore not eligible
- USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm
While local convenience store workers reported seeing an increase in energy drink sales on EBT, KIRO 7 investigators also found evidence that sales of certain energy drinks seemed to rise dramatically, during the first months of the label change. The stock price of Monster (MNST) skyrocketed.
Customers using Food Stamps to buy the beverages also noticed something disturbing at the same time.
"Some people using their benefits started buying a lot more (energy drinks)," said Guttierez. "They were buying them in bulk, I mean they'd buy whole flats of them, four or five cases at a time!"
Guttierez and other Food Stamp recipients told KIRO-7 it was not uncommon to see those same people selling cans of energy drinks on the streets. State DSHS investigators told KIRO-7 that would be classified as Food Stamp fraud.
"Basically they're wanting the money they spent on food stamps to come back in cash," said Guttierez.
Some local food bank workers told KIRO-7 they're noticing another troubling trend. They see some Food Stamp recipients buying expensive energy drinks instead of nutritious food.
"I find it offensive because we need to be able to encourage the people that are receiving those funds to consume and purchase real food with those funds," said Janice Bowen, a King County food bank worker who also receives Food Stamps.
What happens to the EBT? it goes on that (energy drinks) and the food doesn't get purchased in the manner that it should, if at all."
No legislator in Washington State has proposed eliminating energy drinks from the Food Stamp program, but lawmakers in seven other states have — and in each case, the federal government has overruled the idea.
Texas State Rep. Terry Canales recently introduced a strongly-worded bill, determined to stop the purchase of energy drinks with taxpayer funds.
"There's nothing nutritious or healthy about these products," said Canales. "In fact, they're potentially dangerous to children, and we don't believe that you should be able to be using government to be buying it."
Canales points out, energy shots, such as Five Hour Energy (which includes similar ingredients) are not eligible for purchase with Food Stamps, because their labels currently use the word "supplement."
Canales is also suspicious of the marketing motives of the drink manufacturers. "Taxpayers should not be funding this at all," said Canales.
His bill, which he hopes will be noticed by other states, is still being worked out by state committees.