Candy and Basketball: Where Does the Money Go?

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10/09/2002

110th st and amsterdam avenue ny 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

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The next kid who tries to sell me M&Ms on the street is going to get his ass kicked.

I’m agitated, not because these youngsters can be a little rough around the edges, and not because they sometimes stalk a hard-sell for a quarter block, whining, "Come on! Please! Please!" I’m even okay with the kid who put his arm across my shoulders recently, so that we might discuss, more intimately, the issue of my buying a bag of his candy.

What has driven me to fantasies of violence is their evasiveness. When asked why they are fund-raising, the boys usually mumble something about needing warm-ups for their basketball team. In my experience, this is the limit of the information they are willing to divulge. Out of curiosity (and irritation), I decided to look into the matter this past July.

"Who’s your supervisor?" I asked one of the kids I saw selling bags of M&Ms outside Niketown, on East 57th Street.

"I don’t know," he finally said.

"Do they know?" I said, nodding to his three colleagues prowling the sidewalk behind him. He called over one of his friends.

"Yeah, I know," the friend said. "Coach Mike is the supervisor."

"What’s Coach Mike’s last name?" I asked. I reached into my purse for a pen. But the friend only shrugged his shoulders; he said nothing.

The subsequent questions I put forth to the boys were met with silence and vacant stares. None of them could tell me how long this fund-raising effort had been going on, or when the youth program would actually open its doors. They did tell me, if I understood correctly, that the youth program could only be established after the basketball team was fully outfitted. When I pushed for more information, they offered an 8x12 laminated sheet (one beaten copy was shared between four boys) that contained a similarly generic statement about fund-raising for a basketball league and youth program. Despite the rainbows and other happy graphics that filled most of the page, the omissions (phone number, address, contact person, affiliation) were obvious. I recalled being shown a similar sheet – equally void of specifics – around 34th Street and 5th Avenue.»

"If I wanted to make a large donation, to whom would I make out my check?" I asked the young boy who approached me that day. He responded by looking away.

Now, the taller of the two boys standing before me also looked away. He was getting fidgety, eyeing potential buyers as they passed. He knew he needed to close the deal or move on. "Are you going to buy some or not?" he said.

When sold at the prices suggested by fund-raising candy wholesalers ($ .60 for a 1.35 ounce bag; $1 for a 2.25 ounce bag), the profit margin for M&M sales is around 50%. But I’ve found that street solicitors in Manhattan charge $1 for a small bag, and $1.50 or $2 for a large bag, bringing the profit margin to between 65%-75%. A conservative estimate of the amount collected strictly by the kids I’ve encountered since last summer (mostly in midtown Manhattan, but also on subways and Metro North trains) is well into the thousands.

Not to be a stickler, but it does beg the question: What the hell kind of uniforms do these kids need?

The Better Business Bureau requires solicitors to present written handouts with specific information about their organization (phone number, address, exactly how the money will be used) to potential contributors. Without this information, the organizations I contacted, like the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, the NYPD, the Better Business Bureau, and the IRS, were unable to do much about alleged urban youth program fund raisers. But it was generally agreed that, by definition, a fund-raising organization that cannot be easily identified or located is probably not legitimate. (Of course, illegitimacy in the eyes of these authorities does not preclude the possibility that the money is, in fact, being used to fund some type of youth program).

So what is done with the money collected by boys selling M&Ms on New York City’s streets remains a mystery. The candy sells, but these basketball teams are, apprently, still naked.

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