Snack sales are a thriving business in many schools, whether the goods are being peddled to raise money for school clubs or as a lucrative sideline for entrepreneurial students.
But, with youth work opportunities still limited, cracking down on illicit snack sales in schools can have unintended consequences on student engagement, finds a new study published in March in the journal Youth and Society.
Karlyn Gorski, sociologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying a diverse, 1,800-student high school in the Windy City suburbs for the past three years. In the course of observing student engagement at the unnamed school, she stumbled upon a vibrant underground snack economy. Students bought chips and candy wholesale and resold them from backpacks in the halls; others baked trays of brownies and other sweets on a daily basis.
The school, which Gorski’s study dubbed “Hamilton High,” overwhelmingly serves low-income students of color: about 60 percent of whom were Hispanic, 30 percent Black, and less than 10 percent white. About 8 in 10 students come from low-income families. By contrast, Hamilton’s teachers were predominately white women whose incomes averaged nearly $100,000 a year.
Hamilton’s customer base was literally hungry. Students have on average 20 minutes of actual time to eat during lunch and the cafeteria has faced repeated complaints about food quality. Gorski, who ate school lunch herself for a year, said she periodically found still-frozen vegetables and nibbled-on rolls on her tray, and the servings rarely sufficed for the full day. Teachers generally permit students to eat in class, but the school’s few vending machines often run out and break down.
Snack sales highlight inequities
The Center for International Private Enterprise estimates that young adults ages 15 to 25 took twice the hit to their employment in the first years of the pandemic as did older adults. Even as the economy has improved, returning to those jobs has been tougher, with teenagers more likely to compete with adults.
Moreover, “not all of these kids are old enough to hold a job in the formal economy,” Gorski said. “It’s like having a lemonade stand, right? It’s what you can do when you’re that age.”
For many students, Gorski found, making money from selling snacks actually helped them justify remaining engaged in school. For example, one football player turned to snack sales during the sports season to make up for the income he lost while being on the team. Others sold food when their after-school jobs didn’t contribute enough to their family income.
“Usually, when you’re in school, those are not economically productive hours. You’re not making any money,” she said. “So [selling food] is a way …….