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.Billy and his parents had been at odds. The junior at Boulder’s Fairview High School, whose identity has been changed for this story, had been letting his hair grow and was routinely getting it styled. He was buying things without any visible means of income. A few weeks into the 2007 fall semester, he had a brand new iPod. He had new boots, new clothes and was talking about a new car.
“He had no friggin’ job,” his mother, Sue Anne, told Boulder Weekly. “His dad and I won’t let him have a job. We want him focused on school. We want him at Stanford after he graduates, so we don’t need him distracted by a job and all that comes with it. We don’t want him buying videogames and iPods.”
As money became less of an obstacle for Billy, the boy’s parents became more concerned. It had become common to see him with a one- to two-inch-thick wad of cash. They became certain he was dealing drugs. They confronted him.
Billy insisted he was neither using nor selling drugs, promising that he had never even smoked pot. He offered to take a drug test.
“I demanded to know what was going on one morning,” Sue Anne said. “He concocted some story about a rich girlfriend who gives him money. But there was no evidence of this. We never heard him on the phone sounding like he was talking with a girl, no girl was calling the house, and he didn’t act like someone who was in love. He couldn’t tell me her name.”
Sue Anne and William, Billy’s dad, confronted the boy again one morning before school. They demanded answers. Billy asked if they would meet him for dinner that night at the Chop House, a restaurant in downtown Boulder.
“He told us he would buy,” Sue Anne said. “It was unbelievable. I said, ‘are you bringing this girl you speak of?’ He said, ‘let’s just discuss it over dinner.’”
That day, horrifying scenarios raced through the minds of William and Sue Anne.
“The kid had more disposable income than his parents, and there just wasn’t an explanation for it,” William said. “We were told we’d get it that night. All day, I’m wondering if he’s going to tell us about a theft ring, a prostitution ring or a lottery ticket he kept secret. We just didn’t know.”
Billy showed up at the restaurant with “Ralf,” a good-looking boy his own age.
“I was pretty sure he was about to tell us that the rich girlfriend was, in fact, a wealthy boyfriend,” William said. “That’s what I began processing. I was preparing to accept that.”
After everyone ordered, Billy cued Ralf to lay down the prop. Ralf plopped two cards on the table. One was an American Express, and the other a Costco Card. Then he laid out several receipts from Costco.
“He said, ‘Mom and Dad, Ralf and I are in business together.’” Sue Anne said. “He explained that Ralf has a credit card and a membership to Costco. They had this deal worked out where Ralf was buying candy in bulk, very cheaply at Costco, and Billy was selling it. He was selling it in the hallways, in the parking lot and at football games. Ralf was getting a percentage for obtaining the goods, and Billy was taking his cut for marketing and selling. They were marking this stuff up something like 10 times the Costco price. And it was selling. They told us it was easy to sell.”
Billy told them he had kept it a secret because he was fairly certain they wouldn’t approve. He believed it was a violation of school rules, even though nobody was trying hard to stop it. Sue Anne and William were relieved.
“Hey, suddenly it all made sense,” William said. “At this point, we believed that drugs were not a part of it. It was just a bunch of candy. Instead of fearing visits to drug rehab, we had to worry about a dental visit. We went home and laughed about it. We were just so relieved. We were actually kind of proud of him for finding a niche, filling it and making a profit.”
Similar entrepreneurs have popped up all over town this fall in the wake of a new Boulder Valley School District policy that has removed all unhealthy, sugar-laden snacks and sodas from vending machines in schools. The new policies are part of a national trend, in which foods are forbidden at schools if they don’t meet strict nutritional criteria that limit calories coming from sugar and fat.
Boulder’s new policies apply to vendors of food services, snack and beverage vending machines, student stores, fundraisers and “any regularly offered food during a child’s school day.” The policy allows water and seltzers, low-fat milk, fruit juice (no less than 50 percent real juice), and electrolyte sports drinks with 42 grams or less of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving. Allowed snack items include nuts, seeds, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and vegetables, and some packaged fruits. Other food items are allowed only if calories are comprised of 35 percent or less fat, 10 percent or less of saturated fat plus trans fat, and if sugar comprises 35 percent or less of the total weight of the product.
Critics say the regulations will do nothing other than transfer the business of candy sales from legitimate student organizations to individuals willing to cheat and off-campus businesses that don’t come under the regulations.
“It’s not a good idea,” said Gareth Cameron, an 18-year-old who attended Boulder High School last year, when vending machines still sold candy and pop. “Kids want candy and soda, and they’re going to get it one way or another. I guarantee you that. If the vending machines at school don’t sell it, they will find another source.”
Cameron is something of an expert on the subject. That’s because he graduated from Boulder High to a career as afternoon clerk at the Diamond Shamrock Convenience store, across the street from Boulder High at 17th Street and Arapahoe Avenue.
“We get loads of kids in here, mostly during lunch break, and they’re here to buy candy and soda,” Cameron said. “It’s a lot of kids, and it’s a lot of candy and soda. It’s most of our convenience store business.”
The store also sells healthy snacks, including apples and bananas. Students ignore them.
“Only old people buy the fruit,” Cameron said. “The kids only buy candy and pop. That’s it.”
Unlike Boulder High, most Boulder schools aren’t within a few hundred feet of a convenience store — a factor that further fuels the new black market for public school contraband.
At Platt Middle School, parents Amy and Richard — whose identities have been altered — saw similar activity to that witnessed by the parents of Billy at Fairview High. Their child, however, was up front with them when they inquired about the money.
“He had seen another kid selling candy,” Richard said. “This other kid was selling Snickers and Kit Kats for 50 cents, after buying them in bulk. He was making about $18 on a $12 investment — not a very good return.”
Richard’s son, Sean, found a great bargain on AirHeads (a taffy-like candy), at Costco.
“I offered to help him buy the product, if he would pay me back,” Richard said. “We sat down and did the math. He was getting 90 in a box that cost about $12 dollars. Based on what he was able to sell an AirHead for, he was getting a 900 percent profit — almost a tenfold markup. That seemed like a pretty good enterprise. He was clearing at least $150 a week in profit.”
Sean treated his mother to dinner and a movie. Like Billie, he bought an iPod. He bought a fancy gaming keyboard with multiple interchangeable sets of keys, new shoes, a sweatshirt and a hoodie.
“In a devious sort of way, I was proud of him,” Richard said. “One the other hand, we had this sense that something was wrong with this picture. We kind of knew that the school didn’t want him doing this. We also worried that it would all become a bit too enticing. And then, when the customers are too old to want candy, what’s he going to sell? Drugs. That was our concern. We worried that he would be unable to resist the money, and would sell whatever the customer wanted.”
But the parents let it continue. Soon, an e-mail went out from the administration of Platt to all parents of eighth graders:
“The 8th grade team is asking for your support,” the note said. “Please discourage your child from bringing bags of candy and gum to school. The large jawbreakers haven’t been a problem this week so thanks for your support. We are seeing lots of students clustering around lockers when someone has a lot of candy with them; then disruptive hallway behavior becomes a problem. The eating of candy all day definitely has an impact on hyperactivity, lack of focus and issues with behavior carried into the classroom.”
The e-mail caused Richard and Amy to consider putting the boy out of business. But doing so would cost him thousands in anticipated revenues over the school year, and they hesitated to suppress the boy’s entrepreneurial drive.
A business that was easy for a few weeks, however, was getting tougher. Not only was the administration catching on to the black market, and the sugar highs and lows associated with it, but competition was setting in.
“Some other kids started selling the same product for half the price,” Richard said. “He [Sean] was very upset that he would now make only a 4 or 5 percent return. Greed had set in. At one point I put out $40 for product, with the agreement he’d pay me back. When I asked for my money, he refused. He wanted to keep all of the proceeds to himself. He was empowered by this business, but he also got greedy.”
Then came the death knell. In most of Sean’s classes, his grades dropped a full point during the first reporting period as compared to last spring.
“That was it,” Richard said. “It became obvious that this was distracting him from his school work, and we put an end to it. If the grades come back up, we might consider allowing it again. We’ll see. As it now stands, we check up on him and make sure he isn’t buying and selling.”
Briggs Gamblin, spokesman for the Boulder Valley School District, said he hasn’t heard about major problems in the district’s schools regarding the underground sale of sugary contraband. He believes students are coming to terms with the bottled water, milk and healthy foods offered in the vending machines, thus lowering the demand for black-market candy.
“We do have some very bright kids in this district, and that’s the good news,” Gamblin said, after hearing of the underground food market.
Linda Stoll, food services director for Boulder Valley schools, said a district nutrition task force was formed four years ago for the purpose of improving the nutritional value of snacks and lunches in schools. That led to the policies that were enacted this fall.
“The 800-pound gorilla was always the issue of vending machines,” Stoll said. “Nobody liked that we were selling candy and pop, but getting rid of it didn’t seem easy.”
The removal of conventional snacks was controversial, because throughout the district they had become a primary funding source for organizations including bands, sports teams and drama clubs. So the committee opted to avoid banning vending machines, and instead simply adopted a set of criteria that dictates nutritional guidelines for all food items in schools — including those sold from machines. Vending machines would be left to hawk only those items that met the criteria.
Today, vending machines in Boulder’s public schools sell bottled water, juice, nuts and a few sports drinks that meet the low threshold of allowable sugar content. Stoll agreed that all actions result in reactions, and therefore all regulation has unintended consequences — such as the new black market for candy.
“I’m sure the owner of that little gas station near Boulder High is thrilled by our new policies,” Stoll said.
All rules, regulations and laws come with loopholes, which sometimes serve as life preservers for entrepreneurs. The school district’s nutrion policy comes with a exemption for any one-time sale, “such as a fundraiser for a specific event,” Gamblin said.
Sean’s mom, Amy, believes that exemption opens oportunity for her son to sell.
“The policy is vague,” she said. “He might sell candy with the idea of giving some of the proceeds to the homeless shelter. It seems like that might come under the exemption. The next day he might want to help fund a museum.”
Don’t count on it, Gamblin said.
“It would come down to the common sense discretion of the principal at each school,” Gamblin said, to determine whether someone selling forbidden items met the criteria for exemption. “The authority is all with the principal.”
Although the Boulder Valley School District voluntarily enacted nutrition standards, state politicians are working to impose similar practices on all school districts. In April 2006, then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, vetoed a House bill — initiated by Rep. Alice Madden, a Boulder Democrat — that would have forced half of all public school vending machines to dispense only food that had been designated as healthy, in order to combat rising trends in childhood obesity. Owens said he concurred with the intent of the bill, but opposed legislation that “micromanages school districts and their policies.” He noted that 12 districts at the time had voluntarily adopted their own nutrition-minded vending-machine policies in response to a Senate bill in 2005 that encouraged, but did not require, the vending of healthy snacks to replace candy and soda.
With or without state regulation, one thing is clear: Children like candy. When it’s removed from vending machines, market dynamics kick in. A few smart students see a void and invest their money to fill it. Throngs of other students spend with careless abandon, more interested in getting what they want, when they want it, than in getting a bargain. It’s a sugar fix, and the modern high school version of Economics 101.
Boulder’s nutrition policy was borrowed from districts in California, and similar standards are taking hold throughout the country. And wherever the policy appears, so does a black market of young entrepreneurs showing up at school with backpacks full of candy and pockets full of loot.
As reported in a student blog by Jennifer Obakhume, a senior at Inglewood High School in Los Angeles: “Last spring, my school stopped selling fast food and took out all but one soda machine, which now has an unbelievable line. They didn’t plan for what happened next — a black market for junk food. Here’s how it works: students buy huge variety boxes of candy and chips or go to Burger King or Starbucks in the morning and then sell their supplies… students hide their transactions from stricter teachers when their backs are turned in class.”
The Austin American Statesman in Texas reported that a candy ban in public schools turned Austin High School into an underground candy market that resembles “Willy-Wonka-meets-Casablanca.”
“Soon after candy was removed from vending machines, enterprising students armed with gym bags full of M&Ms, Skittles, Snickers and Twix became roving vendors, serving classmates in need of an in-school sugar fix,” the newspaper reported. “Regular-size candy bars like the ones sold in vending machines routinely sold in the halls for $1.50.”
As students gathered around a car in the parking lot outside of Fairview High School last week, one boy asked the dealer: “Do you have Red Vines?”
“Nope. Twizzlers,” the dealer said.
“Sweet,” said the customer, pulling out his wallet