By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau
EBT APPROVED: This sign hanging on the side of a convenience store in Fargo, North Dakota, advertises a popular energy drink as eligible for purchase with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which are used to distribute food stamps benefits.
FARGO, N.D. — A new marketing ploy to push energy drinks to those shopping with government-issued Electronic Benefits Transfer cards is catching the eye of North Dakota consumers, and the tactic even surprises those who work in the retail industry.
A sign hanging on the outside of a Stop-N-Go on South 25th Street in Fargo states that all Rockstar energy drink products are “EBT Approved.” Another sign on a shelf in a Loaf ‘N Jug convenience store in Bismarck advertises Red Bull energy drinks as “EBT eligible.”
Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, have long been criticized for covering items critics say have little to do with nutrition. This may be the first time companies have actively marketed their products to those enrolled in government nutrition programs.
Contacted for comment, Mike Rud, president of the North Dakota Retail Association, said he was unaware of the tactic.
SUBSIDIZED ENERGY: A shelf label at a Loaf ‘N Jug store in Bismarck, North Dakota, advertises Red Bull Energy drinks as available for purchase with a EBT card.
“This is the first time this issue has been brought to my attention,” he said via email. “I have never seen or heard of such marketing strategy before. I just had a board meeting today and none of my members brought the issue to my attention.”
After being shown pictures of the advertising, Rud said he “would need to do a little recon” on the advertising before commenting further.
A Fargo-area convenience store manager, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said the ads surprised him. “It does seem a bit strange that a store would blatantly promote the sale of candy and energy drinks for the EBT market,” he said. “From a marketing standpoint, these signs may turn off some cash-paying customers.”
Red Bull and Rockstar were unresponsive to inquiries about their marketing strategy. Rockstar hasn’t responded to a request for comment. A spokesman for Red Bull said via email that “the marketing strategy that has worked best for us is not to publish our strategies. You see, Red Bull is a privately owned company.”
State officials said determining which products are and aren’t eligible for coverage under the SNAP program is the exclusive purview of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
“As a federal responsibility, the USDA FNS (Food and Nutrition Service) works directly with all approved retailers regarding policy and procedures that must be followed — not the N.D. Department of Human Services,” North Dakota DHS spokeswoman LuWanna Lawrence said in response to an inquiry about the ads.
Lawrence provided Watchdog with a link to SNAP program eligibility guidelines posted on the USDA website, and those guidelines indicate that energy drinks meeting certain labeling requirements can be paid for with taxpayer-provided benefits.
“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,” reads the 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.”
The guidelines indicate soft drinks aren’t eligible products for SNAP benefits.
You can reach Rob Port at firstname.lastname@example.org