The snacks students sell in schools
Investigating the history and sociology of students selling snacks and candy in high schools
Hello, Snackers. Candy bars are $1, bags of chips are $2, I’ve got a stash in my backpack, don’t let the teacher see you. If any of that sounds familiar, you’ll enjoy today’s interview with a researcher who has done some fascinating work on this subject.
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Food in schools is often a fraught subject—ask Michelle Obama—but usually the discussion is about what’s for lunch. When the topic turns to snacks, it’s most often a debate about the contents of a school’s vending machine.
But as you may recall from your own childhood—as I do from mine—the best way to acquire snacks is often from another student with a backpack full of them.
Selling snacks and candy is common, as I learned when I asked Twitter followers if it happened when they were in high school or middle school. Dozens of people replied, with stories going back to the 1970s, when Pop Rocks were the secret treat of choice; I also heard from multiple people whose classmates would order pizzas to be delivered to the school, and then sell individual slices at a profit. (Brilliant, truly.)
It was striking to hear the differences in how teachers and other school officials reacted to this off-the-books marketplace. In some places, it was no big deal at all; in others, snack-sellers faced suspension or other punishment. If you search Google, you can find endless stories of students getting into trouble for selling snacks and candy, including one fifteen-year-old in London who had a “£50,000-a-year tuck shop empire” that he ran with associates out of school bathrooms. (You’ll also find detailed guides to setting up your own mini-shop without getting caught.) Dig around in the newspaper archives, as I did, and you’ll find stories of students getting into trouble for selling snacks and candy at school going back to 1911:
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There are interesting issues and questions to consider here. Why are students selling? Are there reasons beyond money? Which adults are monitoring this activity and why do they care and for which students do they care? There's a lot to unpack, but very little research has actually been done.
Karlyn Gorski, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, has been working to change that. Her recent paper “‘You Selling?’: Snack Sales and the Construction of Deviance in a High School,” published in the journal Youth & Society, examines the dynamics of snack sales at a high school outside Chicago. It’s fascinating research, filled with amusing stories of youthful entrepreneurship and authority-evasion, but also jarring descriptions of the ways that teachers assume the worst of intentions and “how youth experience ‘criminalized childhoods’ in a school context,” with constant surveillance of their lives.
I recently spoke to Gorski on the phone to learn more about her research and findings. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What started you on this project to learn about snack sales?
When I started working on this paper, it was my weird passion because, like all humans, I love snacks. In the depths of the pandemic, I was like, “I want to write about something that brings me joy,” and that's where this came from. I tried to find out what we know about snack sales in schools and I came up with a grand total of one paper, which was from the UK.
There's some literature out there about kids sharing snacks, especially in the preschool and elementary levels, and there’s stuff about kids going out for food after school—like going to fast food joints and hanging out. There’s a broader literature about food. But specifically selling snacks in schools was not something that I could find very much about.
Now that my research is out there and I’m talking about it and presenting it, everybody has a story, whether it's that they sold snacks or their best friend did or some kid they know did. Every person that I've talked to has at least some connections to this thing, so it's apparently ubiquitous, it’s just never really been written about. That was really surprising.
I appreciate how you set up the beginning of your paper by talking about the role of food and snacks and how eating is both a necessity part of life and also a very fraught topic. One thing you mention is that these students were selling good snacks, the foods kids actually wanted to eat.
At Hamilton [the name she used for the high school], the food is dismal—really, really bad. Like, I will eat anything and I was eating school lunches every day for about a year as part of the research. And in that time, I got an apple that had clearly been eaten by rodents and vegetables that were still frozen together. And I can be a grown-up and eat the frozen vegetables, even if I'm not going to be happy about it, but I’m not going to have the mouse-eaten apple. But kids are kids, right? They're even less likely to do that, especially with their peers around. You don't want to be the weirdo who eats the gross food. So the food's bad, they're not eating the school lunches, and they just need calories to get through the day.
I was talking to the administrators at the school a couple months ago, trying to share some of the big themes for my research so far. And I told them, you know, when I started this research and I was talking to kids about what they like and don't like about the school, one of the first things they would say is the lunch. For a while, I was sort of rolling my eyes—like, yeah, kids complain about school lunch, that's been true forever everywhere. I kind of wrote it off. Then I actually started eating the food and I realized that like even for me as an older person, it was just not enough calories. I was grumpy by the end of the day—and that's with eating it, which most of the kids don't. It finally clicked that they're physically uncomfortable during the school day because they're not eating enough food.
And that puts them in a bad mood. It's hard to focus. When you have a couple thousand hangry teenagers, of course they get into arguments and of course they talk back to teachers and don't pay attention. They're hungry.
There’s a student you call Carlos who you talk about quite a bit and it’s really striking how he just wants to sell snacks to make some money. You write, “While Ms. Kelly was ‘pretty impressed’ by Carlos’ entrepreneurship, she approved of it only once she found his ambitions more morally laudable than buying shoes. Thus, adult fears about students’ potential failures … like drug sales or profligate spending, shaped how they responded to snack sales.”
Was that a common sentiment you heard from teachers?
Yeah, what I really saw in that in that particular quote was this moralizing teacher going, “He's not spending it on something frivolous.” And that shows the understanding of a lot of adults in the school, who use [shoes] as an example of over-the-top spending.
To be clear, there are kids who spend money on that kind of thing. But it’s their money! They’re free to spend it however they want. But this teacher sees it as exorbitant spending: “How could you even be so irresponsible to spend money on something like shoes?”
I attended an inner-city high school in the 1990s, and so much of this sounds familiar to me. Kids were selling snacks on the sly, and there was definitely the same lack of trust from teachers and other authority figures. They’d go, “Oh, that kid has a new jacket or that kid has the new whatever” and there was always this implicit and sometimes explicit connection that they were making between what things kids bought and how they earned money—if they had anything nice, the assumption was that they were selling drugs.
Right, exactly. There’s a limited imagination among a lot of adults in the school. They see a kid coming from a poor family and if they suddenly have money, there's only one way that could have possibly happened.
When you have a couple thousand hangry teenagers, of course they get into arguments and of course they talk back to teachers and don't pay attention and whatever. They're hungry.
You write about the social status that comes with selling snacks, which I thought that was really interesting because, again, that is very much my own experience. At my school, it was seen as cool—not necessarily transgressive, but just like, “Oh, that kid is cool because that kid is selling snacks.” There was a correlation.
Yeah. Like, “He's got the good stuff!”
Exactly. I had never thought about it in those terms until I read this, but it totally makes sense.
You know, when I started working on this paper, I got some feedback. A lot of people were asking, “Why do kids sell snacks?” And I hadn't even really thought about that, so I started to go back and play interviews and look at observations that I'd already done. I asked Carlos directly, “What's the motivation here?” And the social side really is a nice bonus—it’s not irrelevant—but the obvious answer seems to be the correct one here, which is for money.
Yeah, it’s not a mystery here! They sell snacks for money because money is good to have. If they get a little social boost from it, too, that’s awesome, but they need money because this is the society we live in.
I’m just looking at the paper again and this bit about the brownies. [A student told Gorski, “I was selling brownies last year and he [an administrator] thought they were [cannabis] edibles. They called the police on me and shit, but he knew I was a good kid, so he just let me go. . . I lost like $6 worth of brownies, but it is what it is.”]
It shouldn't make me laugh because it's actually very infuriating, but it's also just like, “Come ON.” This is one place where I can sort of see the logic of the rules, in a way, because my speculation is that older adults have this connection between pot and brownies that may not necessarily exist with high school students as much. But it’s still weird that they’re making this leap from “Oh, you have brownies” to “They must be pot brownies.”
When I was interviewing that kid, I knew him pretty well. He had a positive trusting relationship with one of the vice principals. I asked him, “How did that arise? Like, how did you get to know each other?” And he said, “Oh, it was the brownie incident—I told you about the brownies, right?” No! I didn’t know. And he told me about it and said, “Yeah, so that’s how I know that guy. We’re buddies now.”
The part that’s not present in the paper is that for him, this wasn't even this big negative thing. He was frustrated but not outraged. And that almost made me upset in a way, where it was like, “You should be outraged at this. It should not be normal.” But it was for him. Such a normal routine. Like, of course they would assume it's drugs because that's what adults here do is assume that everything is drugs.
Right, it shouldn't be just a small thing that you can brush off, because it's pretty messed up. I was impressed, though, that he said he’d made a thousand dollars selling brownies.
This is one of the things that's also not in the paper but Carlos, when the pandemic hit, he pivoted to selling toilet paper and made like $10,000. He was using Instagram to sell and also eBay, and then eBay shut him down for price gouging. And then actually—it’s funny that the teacher said the thing about shoes—he pivoted to doing sneaker sales.
He's still doing that. He’s going to shoe stores for these sneaker drops and sitting on Zoom school on his phone while waiting in line for these exclusive things. He’s making like two grand a month and this has been going on for months and months now. He has a really legitimate income and his dad helps him keep track of the inventory and pay taxes on everything. So it's all extremely above board.
This kid is a legitimate entrepreneur, and the school could be encouraging that. He’s still has his snack thing a little bit, but now that's just peanuts because he's actually making sales.
In the paper, you make the comparison at one point to the Girl Scouts. I have a six-year-old who's a Girl Scout and, just as you said, they talk about money management and sales pitches and all that stuff. It really does sound like for Carlos, in particular, snack sales have led him on this path of understanding how a business works, which in this society is usually something to be celebrated.
Right. You know, there wasn't room in this piece to get into, like, maybe we don't want to be training our children to be little capitalists. But bracketing that, if we are going to live in this society, then this is the exact thing that we should be encouraging.
When it's little girls, especially little white girls, we all applaud and say, “How cute!” and “I can’t wait to go buy those cookies!” And if it's a Black kid with Doritos, now the expectation is that it's about drugs.
You talk about “school criminalization,” which is not a term I had heard before but immediately made sense. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the consequences of these crackdowns on snacks?
To put it plainly, the kids then just see school as bullshit. They are extremely aware of the fact that this is ridiculous. You are putting time and money and resources into policing snack foods.
Teenagers are fantastic social observers. That is what you’re primed to do at that age: pay attention to everything going on around you. And so they see that and they're just like, “Well, screw all of this because if that's what you're really gonna worry about, why would I really care about this institution that is invested this much in bullshit?”
Carlos, every time we talk about snacks, every single interview, says, “There are kids selling drugs in the school but [the teachers] care about snacks.” For three years, he’s been talking about how absurd it is. And it makes me sad because a lot of the kids in the study like to learn. They like their teachers, they think learning is a fun activity. It’s nice to master stuff. They have no problem with all that. The issue is all the bullshit.
It’s like, “Why do you have a problem with me eating Doritos or selling Doritos? As long as I can still sit here and do this math problem, why should it matter?” And because there's not ever going to be a satisfying answer to that, they're like, “Fuck it.”
You talk about teachers having different views of all this, although it seems like they all ultimately come down on the side of “Well, I’m obligated to report this.” Did you find any teachers who understood the entrepreneurial learning aspect in a meaningful way?
I'm trying to think of the teachers. The one who I think would be most likely to is Ms. Park, the one who said, “Well, it was in front of me” [in the hallway]. If it had happened in her classroom and she had seen it, she wouldn't have said anything. She would get it.
The group that really gets it and never punishes it—and this is an interesting thing that I was not necessarily expecting to find—is the security guards. They will buy snacks from kids. They will spot kids money so they can buy snacks from each other.
They know who all the sellers are and all this stuff. And it's because the security guards are mostly Black men coming from poor and working-class backgrounds, like the kids, so they know that hustle. They've been around it, they've seen it. There are also three cops in this school—and I have a lot of feelings about that—but they’re the last people who are going to care about snacks because, as Carlos points out, there are kids telling drugs in and that's who they actually care about.
So where the teachers are sort of jumping to this connection, the cops and security guards are like, “No, it’s not drugs. If it were drugs then I'd have a problem, but this is Doritos.”
There’s the one security guard who I mentioned in the paper, who is a white woman, and she’s the one super authoritarian who goes after it. And the rest of them … I can't count how many examples I have in my notes, but this one guard in particular, kids will come up and ask for a dollar and he'll give them a dollar so that they can buy snacks from their friends.
There are some teachers who are just extremely focused on discipline and order and sweating the small stuff because they want their classrooms to look and sound and operate a certain way. And the security guards are really looking at things through a lens of “Is this a threat to anybody's safety?”
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Because that's how they’re viewing the school. If they see stuff going on that's not a threat, they still might be like, “Hey, go to class,” but if no one’s getting hurt, they’re not really worried about it. And because they are humans, they like snacks and so they buy snacks. They directly benefit from this system. But I’ve never seen a teacher buy snacks from kids except the ones that are formal club sales.
This is something else that I had never connected but is totally my experience: I had to sell those terrible chocolate almond bars for fundraisers. That was so common and required by the school.
Exactly, everyone knows that's allowed, but this other kind isn't. And it’s like, wait, it’s bullshit that the kid who has the time to join the Spanish club and try to go to Peru can do this, but not the kid who is trying to buy shoes because he needs to cover his feet in the winter.
I was also surprised that the kids could eat in class, which is definitely not my experience. You have an anecdote about a girl buying a bag of Doritos through this clever method of “sharing” a friend’s snack and then leaving her backpack at the friend’s desk, with this whole routine of misdirection to avoid detection. But I was also just struck by the fact that eating in class was okay.
It was very clever and it was so beautifully executed. Eating in class varies by teacher. Some don’t like it but for the most part, they’ve decided it’s a losing battle, so it’s de facto allowed, although certainly not explicitly. The handbook says you're not allowed to eat outside of the cafeteria, so officially it’s prohibited, but everybody does it.
Interesting—so eating is decriminalized in the school sense, but selling is not?
Right. So they could make the same decision about sales that they have made with consuming food, but they don't. In the broader dissertation, this is a theme that I return to a lot. We talk about schools as these like really highly regimented spaces, and in a lot of ways they certainly are, but there's also an enormous amount of ways in which it’s inconsistent. Looking at what you encounter walking into a school today versus tomorrow, there’s going to be a lot of overlap, but it’s also going to be different in some ways, and the ways it differs will vary day by day and week by week. There are just so many inconsistencies and when you’re a kid navigating that, that's stressful and it's frustrating. The adults like to point to rules and say “It says right here …” and it’s like, well, last week you didn’t have a problem with it but now you do all of a sudden?
I haven't gone out of my way to bring this paper to the administration because I'm still in the school and wrapping up research over the next couple months. I don't want to rock the boat. But I'm curious what would happen if I went to the admin team and told them, “I want you to read this paper and discuss and come up with something, whether you're going to explicitly allow snack sales or explicitly prohibited them.”
When I envision that, it’s interesting because—the principal, for example, I think would say, “Yeah, of course kids are going to sell snacks. When I went to school kids sold snacks.” He might have been the kid who sold snacks, knowing him! He would just not have an issue with this at all and would think it was great and inventive and entrepreneurial. But some of the other members of the admin team I think would be more like “Well, but we can't. Think about the liability. What if someone sold an expired bag of chips? Would we be on the hook for that?”
I don't even know if they would emerge with like an answer or a strategy. But there's this thing happening, and they know about it even without me writing this. It's not any kind of secret, but it's just in this really weird liminal space.
Maybe that's a good place to close. If you could make a policy change at the school, what would you want the administrators to do with this information from your research?
I would love them to explicitly allow snack sales, as they do for kids who are members of groups and activities, I would be fine if that included rules like they have to be individually packaged snacks—a bag of Doritos, is different from a kid making a tray of brownies at home. I get that. But I also think that kids should have the chance to raise money for something that he personally needs it for, as opposed to money that's just going to go into the school's coffers. That's the part of it that really strikes me as deeply unfair: there are conditions when this is allowed, but it's only the ones where you control the purse strings. We should trust kids to manage their own money.
Special thanks to Paul Musgrave for pointing me to Gorski’s work.
Thanks for reading! Two quick notes!
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