When Jamie’s School Dinners was first broadcast in 2005, it established Britain’s secondary schools as a battleground for politicians, professionals, and campaigners who wanted to improve the diet of young people and stop the obesity tide.
First, Turkey Twizzlers was banned. In 2008, the English government implemented stricter food standards in all schools managed by local authorities. In these schools, the sale of chocolate, sweetened drinks, and other confectionery was prohibited, and the sale of less-healthy products, such as chips, was severely restricted. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have all adopted similar legislation.
Could this cause more harm than good to our children? Napoleon called Britain A Nation of Shopkeepers. The prohibition of such a broad range of products could have created a new generation operating illegally in our schools’ playgrounds and corridors.
According to new research, published in Society, restrictions on junk food in secondary schools may have led to a black market in the food. In six English secondary schools, the research found that students were running “underground businesses” selling prohibited food and drinks.
Illicit supply of doughnuts
The students and staff at these schools said that the new restrictions placed on school food and their dissatisfaction with rushed and crowded canteens had created an ideal storm for black market growth. This illicit supply of high-calorie items such as doughnuts and cookie bags has been fueled by the proliferation of supermarkets, including new high-street stores located near secondary schools.
Students resell their cheapest items in school, akin to a convenience shop. Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and other new technologies can help students advertise the products they are selling in school on that particular day, as well as where they will be.
Teachers, school administrators, and other secondary staff members appear to be turning blind eyes. There are few incentives for them to take action to stop or reduce these black markets of food and drinks. Instead, the focus is on schoinspectionons reports, performance goes,als, and “league tables.” The school’s priority is not to focus on the diets of students or obesity issues. Students in six of the schools investigated reported that teachers did not care about the illegal resale of energy drinks and food, even when the practice was widespread.
Media attention has focused on the ways in which young people can benefit from school food and beverage bans. Last year’s Educating Yorkshire was a brilliant, fly-on-the-wall documentary about Thornhill Community Academy. It included scenes where students were smuggling energy drinks and snack foods into gym bags to sell.
The Daily Mail reported earlier this year that a Nottingham trader had set up a “Car Boot Tuck Shop” to capitalize on the demand for sweets, chips, and fizzy beverages outside of schools. The US newspapers have reported that Michelle Obama’s reforms to school food have spawned a black market for junk food.
We don’t need any education.
Schools have always been places of resistance, and these underground distribution networks are simply a form of rebellion against the extremely restrictive nature of secondary school. These findings are alarming from the perspective of public health, as they show that young people have access to cheap, calorific snacks, energy drinks, and junk food at school.
There are many examples of legislation that has had a positive impact on public health, such as the ban on smoking in public places. However, there are many other cases where prohibitions have led to new underground economies or worse harm. In the 1920s, black marketeering was used to resist alcohol prohibition in America.
Henry Dimbleby, John Vincent, and the Leon restaurant founders have created a new English School Food Plan that is packed with great ideas. It advocates simplifying nutritional standards for school canteens. These plans would not change the wide variety of products that are banned.
We must not drive problems underground to improve the diet of young people. It is better to start any school food policy by giving young people more voice and the chance to influence their environment more legitimately, rather than increasing restrictions up until they open their convenience store at school.
The government must be more efficient when intervening in the food industry, as it was with tobacco and alcohol. It’s not possible to ignore what supermarkets are doing around schools.