Black-market junk food hits schools

While fourth-grader John isn’t one to swagger into the schoolyard and swing his coat open to reveal a lining stuffed with brightly coloured bags of chips and candy, he’s making some serious money filling a role that schools, until recent years, had managed. The term ‘black market’ invokes early 20th century days of speakeasies and mafia, but the concept is making its resurgence, this time on playgrounds across Canada.

When faced with the rising epidemic in health problems among the young, ranging from obesity to malnutrition, Canadian school districts decided enough is enough. The plan: limit unhealthy foods and promote quality ones for the seven or so hours a day kids are at school. This has resulted in aggressive nutritional programs sweeping across the country over the last few years, including healthier lunches and the prohibition of the sale of junk foods in schools. Many have reasoned that by limiting the foods available to students, rising student health concerns would likely begin to abate. Fatty, salty and sugary items were shown the door, while salads, orange juice and bagels marched their way into lunchrooms across the land.

The result: pint-sized capitalists are rebelling against the system, and other kids are buying what they’re selling to satisfy their chocolate-y fixes.

Candy contraband

Young entrepreneurs, like John, responded to overwhelming student demand by buying items no longer sold in schools and selling them at inflated prices to other kids. Netting hundreds of dollars per week, these diminutive dealers are bringing in enough cash to buy their swag: iPods, new clothes and even treating their folks to dinner.

Winnipeg School Division’s Health Education Consultant, Nori Korsunsky, makes it clear that it’s not so much about restricting or banning the sale of food as it is enforcing positive behaviour. Instead of rewards coming in the form of treats, schools can allot extra time for recess, which gets kids moving. Parents still pack lunches with less healthy food choices, but schools are doing what they can to educate families about nutrition, offering brochures with quick, healthy meal choices, holding workshops for parents, and teaching nutrition education to students in the classroom.

Reactions to kids’ selling junk food have been mixed. Some claim students selling candy are being encouraged by a system that largely shrugs its shoulders. Others decry the illicit sales as a stepping stone to kids’ selling drugs later in life, and that anyone not cracking down on kids’ filling lockers with cheesy puffs is teaching lawlessness. Finally, concerns exist because of food handling. Parents who investigate Halloween candy for quality may not trust the source of the kids sweet and salty fixes. These kid entrepreneurs may not have their peers’ best interests at heart.

While junk foods are not the healthy stuff of daily meals, does prohibition drive down demand, or does it simply create a new desire for these items?

No matter what, all can probably agree that trading capital for cavities on the playground is not a welcome sight in a country whose youth is fighting the battle against unhealthy eating.

Parent resources:
Canadian Paediatric Society, Healthy bodies, heathy eating:
Winnipeg School Division Parent Handbook “Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids!”:
Manitoba School Nutrition Handbook:
Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide:

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