Cream and Sugar

August 28, 2006

Soft drinks may be getting yanked from school vending machines, but that doesn’t mean that teens are weaning themselves from caffeine and sugar. Not when Starbucks franchises are popping up around high schools.

There’s debate on whether Starbucks is marketing to kids. The kids themselves say hell yeah.

Giana doesn’t buy Starbucks’ claim that it’s not marketing to kids. She points to the section of the menu that’s thick with chocolate, caramel and whipped cream. “That’s the kids menu,” she says, which she notes sagely is not good for diabetes. She compares the way the creamy drinks mask the bitter taste of coffee with how fruity mixed drinks make it easier for teens to down alcohol. “It’s like chocolate milk for big kids,” she says.

Just typing this makes me lick my chops for some frothy mochaliscious beverage.

Turns out that coffee drinking among youth is on the rise, and girls in particular find the specialty drinks irresistable. Their favorite celebrities are often photographed toting lattes–the equivalent of a cigarette in the 50s. It enables girls to skip meals and feel fashionable and grown up. Triple whammy!

Starbucks and other java purveyors may be giving kids something they don’t need (empty calories), but they are also giving them something else that youth crave. Something that is in short supply in this country, circa 2006: a place to hang out that’s not school, home, work or the library.

Professor Bryant Simon, a historian who is the director of the American studies program at Temple University, has talked to dozens of teens and tweens for a book he’s writing about Starbucks. He believes that kids discovered the chain because there are so few public spaces to go in America. It provides them a place where for a few bucks they can stay as long as they like without being hassled. And since it’s not overtly marketed to kids, it feels more cultured than going to a fast food chain, like McDonald’s. Plus, unlike at McDonald’s or Taco Bell, you can move the chairs around to make room for all your friends.

When I was teaching, I remember a teenager telling me sadly about meeting her friends at a local playground. They were swinging on the swings, and a cop approached them and told them to skedaddle–that they were too old to be playing on the equipment.  Once a coffee shop opened nearby, the kids organized a poetry night and it soon became the place to be.