Bay Area students hawk unhealthy and illegal junk food on campuses

- Not allowed to officially have a job at a young age and in dire need of cash, a number of middle and high school students are turning up their entrepreneurial – but unhealthy and technically illegal – efforts, starting pop-up junk food shops on campuses in the Bay Area and beyond.

Last school year, one student at Pinole High School, who asked not to be named, earned hundreds of dollars selling candy and chips to friends – his duffel bag-turned-underground office the hub of all his transactions, most of which occurred in between classes.

He was making so much money, his aunt urged her son, then a junior at El Cerrito High School, to start a similar business too, according to a story first reported in Oakland Magazine.

The boy’s mother pitched in too. She wanted him to start saving for college. So she regularly took trips to Costco to buy boxes of junk food, effectively turning her son turn into a mobile vending machine when the teachers weren’t looking. He’d have to repay her for the products with his profits, which averaged about $25 to $35 a week.

It’s not just high schoolers who are getting in on the action. Students at Claremont Middle School in Oakland often take off to buy candy, Cheetos and Takis at Eddie’s Liquor Store in Rockridge and then sell the bags of salty, sweet and fatty snacks to their friends for about a buck a bag.

“Why not?” asked one student who asked not to be named and who saw nothing wrong with the school-time sales. He estimates there are about a dozen or so kids who sell the junk food throughout the week. And he said the teachers never seem to say anything, despite it not being OK.

No one keeps track of how many students and schools are involved in this phenomenon; some school administrators contacted by KTVU were surprised to learn that this was evening happening. And those school districts that were contacted downplayed the prevalence of contraband chips circulating on their campuses.

Selling anything, but especially junk food, on school grounds, violates both California and federal law. Not only are kids selling items without business permits, but selling any type of non-nutritional food product during the school day on a campus that participates in federally subsidized free lunch and breakfast programs is against the law.

Cynthia Butler, spokesperson for the California Department of Education, said the state began requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals in 2012 to create a healthier school environment. Two years late, the US Department of Agriculture developed national standards to mirror those in California, she said. That meant vending machines selling chocolate and chips were out.

Despite the evidence that there are students who sell junk food underground, Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki said there doesn’t appear to be a “major problem, partly because the moment school leaders find out about something like this, they move to shut it down.”

He added that if students are caught with “ the “product," it is confiscated, as are all moneys received in payment for said product. The students involved in this kind of enterprise are dealt with swiftly, and their parents are engaged in the process.”

He said sometimes students don't even know they aren't allowed to do this and so staff will explain it to them.

“We, of course, support and foster our students' entrepreneurial spirit,” Sasaki said. “But when they are at school, we always want them focused on learning and not trying to make money."

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