Pass the Hot Chips

As schools work to improve their nutritional offerings, kids are becoming human vending machines, selling junk food to their peers.


Photo by Milah Gammon

Hanes, a rising junior at El Cerrito High School, doesn’t get an allowance. So his mom nudged him to make some money on his own and mimic what his cousin was doing at his Pinole school: Sell junk food to his classmates.

Since he became a mobile human vending machine this spring, the 15-year-old’s business has been brisk: Hanes estimates that he profits about $25 to $35 a week, after he gives his mother the cost of the hot chips and candy she supplies him with from Costco. Half goes in his pocket. Half goes to his college fund. As for the Cheetos and the Gatorade, they are quickly ingested by his hungry and eager customers—fellow students that he sells to in between classes.

“I try to keep it on the down-low,” said Hanes, which is not his real name. 

Hanes is one of countless middle and high schoolers throughout the East Bay who are selling junk food for profit to their peers. The schoolkids are filling a void left by schools in California and throughout the nation, as campuses have increasingly eliminated vending machines in recent years and sought to upgrade nutritional offerings and improve children’s health.

And Hanes and others are right to keep their business endeavors under wraps, because selling junk food on school grounds violates both California and federal law. Not only are kids hawking their wares without business permits, but selling any type of junk food or sugary beverage 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, explained that in 2012, the state began requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals to create a healthier school environment. And in 2014, the US Department of Agriculture developed national standards to mirror those in California, she said, and vending machines that sold Snickers, Doritos, and other high-fat, high-sugar items were forbidden on campuses.

Since then, she said, the Department of Education has been encouraging school fundraisers to pay for extracurricular programs with activities such as car washes instead of bake sales so as not to violate these rules. “There is strong evidence showing that well-nourished students do better on standardized tests, have less absenteeism, and improved cognitive performance.”

Hanes said he never thought about the health consequences. He just knows what his friends like to eat and what they’re willing to buy. During the school year, he packs 22 bags of hot chips and Cheetos into a duffel bag and carts the goods off to school. On hot days, he sells soda, juice, or Gatorade. To keep things simple, everything is $1. He tries to sell in between classes and not bother the teachers. But it doesn’t always work out that way. “Sometimes, people just come up to me and bug me to buy food,” Hanes said. “They push me to the point where I have to sell to them, or I can’t get my work done.”

But overall, Hanes said he tries not to disrupt lessons with his sales, and so far, no teachers have confiscated his goods. Neither has the security guard. In fact, she bought something to eat from him once, he said.

Enforcement isn’t a top priority either at Oakland’s Claremont Middle School, where mostly 6th- and 7th-graders are known to run over to Eddie’s Drive In Liquors on College Avenue, buy up a heap of chips and Mike and Ikes, and resell them to their classmates during the day. One student estimated there are 30 tween sellers on campus.

Lacy Lefkowitz, a Claremont teacher, doesn’t really support the kids buying junk food and selling it, not only for health reasons, but also because she’s concerned about students walking around with so much cash on campus. But she hasn’t really clamped down on it either.

Instead, Lefkowitz tries to use the students’ junk food sales and eating habits to work into conversations about diet and safety. “If I see someone eating hot chips for breakfast, I might start eating my own banana in front of them and then talk about what makes a good meal to start your day with,” she said.

Judith Klinger, a teacher at Alameda High School, said her administrators put the kibosh on junk food sales a while back, and she’s glad for the ban. “It’s a good thing,” she said.

Butler, from the state education department, wishes more schools would follow Alameda High’s lead. “Selling high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie items on school campuses undermines the district’s efforts to create a healthy school environment,” she said, adding that allowing children to sell candy and chips on campus seems to send a “mixed message” about what schools deem important.  

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