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Study finds evidence of black markets for junk food in schools

10 September 2013

Dr. Adam Fletcher

 Dr Adam Fletcher

Recent school food legislation in England completely banning a wide range of products in state-maintained schools may have done more harm than good, according to a study published in Sociology this week.

The research team, led by Dr Adam Fletcher of the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, with colleagues from the University of East London, University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford, reported evidence of extensive black markets in ‘junk’ food and energy drinks in English schools.

Other factors that appear to be fuelling new ‘underground businesses’ in food and drink in secondary schools are the perceived poor value of ‘healthy’ school food – provided in rushed, over-crowded, anti-social canteens – and the prioritisation of attainment rather than student health by school staff.

This research also suggests that the re-sale of chocolate bars, cookies, doughnuts, other sweet snacks and energy drinks is enabled by instant messaging (to advertise these products) and the proliferation of high street supermarkets near secondary schools. Supermarkets were often effectively the ‘wholesaler’ in the supply chain and poorer students re-sell their products in school.

While some public health legislation controlling certain behaviours has been highly effective (e.g. banning smoking in public spaces), it is not unusual for prohibitive legislation to fuel new underground economies and greater harms. Most famously, the National Prohibition Act created new problems in 1920s America as alcohol prohibition was resisted via black marketeering.

The researchers concluded that:

“From a public health perspective, these findings are alarming as they suggest young people still have easy access (perhaps easier access than ever because of the proliferation of supermarket outlets) to ‘junk’ food, calorific snack products and sweetened drinks while in school. New school food standards introduced in 2009 may therefore be another case of a well-meaning policy with unintended harmful consequences.”

The Sociology article by Adam Fletcher and colleagues, entitled ‘We've got some underground business selling junk food’: qualitative evidence of the unintended effects of English school food policies, is available to download here.