Children as young as seven being targeted by gangs to sell drugs
Criminal "chicken shop gangs" are recruiting children to deal drugs with the offer of free food.
The tactic, dubbed "chicken shop grooming", was highlighted in written evidence submitted to the Youth Select Committee as part of its investigation into the UK's knife crime epidemic.
Young people with experience of the criminal justice system said children who had been excluded from school were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
"Some shared that their peers had been targeted by gangs outside of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), as well as outside sports centres," evidence from the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales said.
"They also said that sometimes children are recruited through an offer of food (referred to as chicken shop gangs) and they felt that schools could to do more to keep children in school as it could be a protective factor from gang involvement."
Children's charities confirmed to PA the tactic is one of many used to lure children into the criminal lifestyle, while schoolchildren are being warned of the potential risk.
An east London primary school headteacher shared a YouTube video highlighting the dangers of chicken shop grooming with children as young as seven amid fears the technique was being used at take-away restaurants in the area, including a local branch of McDonald's.
A poster campaign targeting high school students launched by London Grid for Learning (LGfL) - a community of schools and local authorities in the capital - tells children: "There's no such thing as free chicken! Friends of friends who buy you things often want something in return."
LGfL online safety and safeguarding manager Mark Bentley said: "In terms of schools or parents who might think this wouldn't happen in this leafy area, chicken shops are legion, and kids like to hit the chicken shop on the way home from school.
"It's so easy for them to think, 'oh, I can save a couple of quid', and it's easy to get sucked in."
The Children's Society last month said "county lines" drug gangs - which use young and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between cities and smaller towns - are recruiting children as young as seven, although those aged 14 to 17 are most at risk.
Natasha Chopra, the charity's London disrupting exploitation programme manager, said she has been aware of chicken shop grooming since she started working in the sector in around 2008.
She explained cuts to youth services have led to more children spending time in places where they could be targeted.
"Young people tend to go to places like fast-food chains of a cheaper cost. Young people may use certain fast-food chains as a place to socialise," she said.
"In terms of exploitation, these exploiters know that these young people are going to be at a vast range of fast-food chains.
"That's when the 'targeted' stage comes in, because exploiters will actually watch and observe the young people.
"They will watch and they will check and think, 'ok this particular young person comes in at this time, they leave at this time. Why are they not going home?'
"That's the way it will start with a conversation like, 'hi, here's some chicken or here's some chips' and that relationship can form quite easily."
Ms Chopra said the next phase of exploitation could involve a child being offered around £20 to act as a lookout for a criminal gang before becoming "hooked" on the experience of having access to money and feeling like they are part of a family or moving up the ranks.
Once involved in a gang, children are stopped from leaving with threats towards family members and friends, or with videos of them performing sex acts or inserting drugs into their bodies, she said.
Ms Chopra said it is difficult to put a figure on the number of children being exploited by criminals, but added: "It's happening anywhere and everywhere... I think it can be any child that can be subjected to criminal exploitation."
In January, the National Crime Agency (NCA) warned as many as 10,000 children may be involved in "county lines" drug dealing, with profits estimated to total around £500 million a year.
The NCA, which jointly runs the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre with the National Police Chiefs' Council, estimated there were more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in operation in the UK with annual profits for each in excess of £800,000.
A spokesman for the centre would not comment on the issue of chicken shop grooming but said: "We work to tackle grooming as a whole, in all its forms and guises."
Barnardo's chief executive Javed Khan said: "Criminal gangs use a variety of methods to groom, coerce and control vulnerable children.
"Children are offered money, 'gifts' such as food and alcohol, or simply friendship, and then use sexual exploitation and violence as methods of control.
"Barnardo's raises awareness among night-time workers, including those that work at fast-food outlets, to identify children who may be vulnerable and help them to understand how to keep them safe."