Contraband

Without it being in our plans at all, my wife and I took over a canteen in a private school in January this year. The opportunity presented itself in December. A tenant, forced on the venture by his mother, had decided to follow his true calling. He sought someone to assume his lease. We took a look at the numbers, glanced askance at neighboring stalls that were doing extremely well, thought somewhat optimistically of our chances, and waded right in.

It wasn’t easy going, as I soon learned. Grade school and high school students are an especially finicky lot, and being generally well off, and being from Davao, feel especially entitled. Our first two days were a loss, but thanks to some of my wife’s quick pivoting, the next three weeks broke even. I felt discouraged but my wife persisted and after some more innovative ideas and adaptation, the store was humming along and actually turning a profit. Not as much as we originally envisioned, but decent enough.

By the end of the year, though, we’re giving up the lease as well. We made it through the first half of the year all right. However, administration decided to raise our rent — oh, excuse me, “donation” — by 20%, a surprise popped on us just as classes were about to start from summer break. Moreover, it turned out many of our regulars, those hungry hungry teenagers who ordered double servings, had already graduated. We saw our sales dip, just as we thought we were hitting our stride.

Running a school canteen is challenging enough but all the restrictions placed by the school, made it doubly difficult. For one thing, the school imposed a price ceiling on our lunch offerings: a maximum of P50 for a rice meal, you know, to keep things affordable for the poor students. For another — and this is DepEd’s brilliant idea — no sugar products and junk food allowed. This meant no softdrinks, no powdered juice mixes, no chips, no chocolate bars, no chocolate cake, no cookies, no marshmallows, no ice cream, and, for good measure, no French fries. All to promote a program of healthy eating. In a few weeks, though, outside of school premises and therefore not bound by school or government restrictions, a 7-Eleven convenience store will be opening.

A few weeks ago, my wife got some insight as to why our sales were dipping. She’s befriended many of our young customers, and one day she got into a chat with one of them. “You look very happy,” my wife commented to the grade schooler. “Yes, I have some money now; all my marshmallows sold out!” the young entrepreneur replied. Marshmallows? Sold out? On further coaxing, my wife got the full story. The students were bringing in their own snack foods and selling to each other: chips, cookies, chocolate bars, and yes, marshmallows, all those things the school said WE were not allowed to sell!

Sure, it’s a cute story, but if you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s a cautionary tale on the futility of government controls. Economics will find a way, the iron law of supply and demand will prevail, and restrictions will only create a black market. That’s as true in the classroom as in Prohibition in the thirties in the United States as it is in the drug war.