Gus Belsher scans the snack aisle with the practiced eye of any shrewd corporate buyer. But the 11-year-old isn’t looking for maximum taste. He wants maximum trade value. “I usually get gummies and pizza Goldfish. Everyone loves those,” says the Hingham fifth-grader, who leverages the sweet and salty treats into lunchtime trades at school. “It can’t be cranberries or chocolate pretzels. It’s not really weird stuff.”
Lunchtime deal-making continues to flourish in schools, even as hypervigilance related to food sensitivities and federal school lunch reform has changed the environment. For most kids, it’s a chance to upgrade their own lunch — or get schooled on the finer points of manipulation. Chex Mix, for instance, might be worth more than Goldfish to a student who only gets the fish crackers in the lunchbox, or two of a kid’s least-favorite flavor of Jolly Ranchers are a fair swap for two jumbo marshmallows. Some children will even trade an Oreo for an apple.
But Gus, who started trading in first grade and today shops with his own cart (but his mom’s money), is game to play on a daily basis, especially when a pal’s “probably homemade” quesadilla is at stake. “They’re so good,” he says about his friend’s Mexican-style lunch. “We do this manager thing where you get allowance every day in a little bit of quesadilla, but you have to put in food to give to him. He asks you for half a bag of Smartfood or Goldfish or pretzels and he’ll give you a bit of quesadilla.” The deal isn’t always fair. “It’s a little bit of a rip-off to give so much for such a little bit,” he says. But it’s a price Gus is willing to pay. “They’re really cheesy. They’re really salty. They’re so good.”
Once he took an exchange too far, and brought little cans of root beer to school. “The teacher saw and that ended that,” he says. “I got busted.”
The idea is to keep the enterprise small and out of view of the roving lunch monitors. “If it got big, we’d get busted, so we don’t ask lots of kids, probably four or five,” says Gus.
But the risk is as fun as the reward, according to Jeanne Goldberg, founding director of the graduate program in nutrition communication at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “One of the things kids like to do is get away with stuff,” she says. Trading usually starts around third grade, she says, when 8- and 9-year-olds are developing social norms. She notes that allergies have prompted many schools to put in place overly strict policies prohibiting the sharing of food, when they should focus more on making the overall experience more “civilized.”
She thinks a barter of three nacho chips for two strawberries doesn’t matter, nor does popcorn for an orange. “I’d consider that low-stakes stuff,” she says. “The mother who sends the orange wants the kid to eat the orange, but I regard both as good, unless the popcorn is coated in [artificial] orange.”
But many kids aren’t trading “low-stakes” foods. They’re trading nutritious foods for processed ones. In other words, if they only bring store-bought cookies, then homemade ones are appealing, and it works the other way around as well.
Like other things children do that they don’t want teachers to see, most deals are done behind the backs of staff members. Ruth Griffin, nutrition services director for the Needham Public Schools, says the district discourages trading because of allergies, but her staff doesn’t see what takes place after students pass through the food line. What she does sometimes witness, however, are the kids who bring lunch from home only to decide they want to buy lunch instead. “The parents might say, ‘You can only buy two days a week,’ but the kid wants to buy. I’ve seen kids in the cafeteria take their lunch box and dump it into the trash and parents never know,” she says. “One kindergartner found out it was pizza day and wanted it so badly he was crying. The aide let him buy lunch and the parents were furious.”
Emotions can run high in the trading arena as well. Jason Stein, 11, a sixth-grader in Needham, has witnessed more than a few negotiations he would describe as “ridiculous.” Jason says, “One person traded an entire slice of pizza, which was their entire lunch, for five pieces of gum.” One of his best trades was a small dessert brought from home for a school breadstick “that was really, really good,” and he even scored some snacks in exchange for bouncy balls, prizes often found at elementary school fairs. “I have a collection, and I brought in the ones I didn’t want,” he says.
His mother, Rebecca, calls the commerce “all harmless fun,” and sees it as a sign that Jason’s career will take an entrepreneurial path. But Jason’s twin, Jack, likens the lunch scene to “the black market” and doesn’t trade.
Jack thinks Jason has made at least one questionable deal. “One trade Jason did for one piece of watermelon Sour Patch gum that he had never seen before and really wanted to try. He traded two good desserts for it, which wasn’t really a good deal because two desserts is pretty good to eat and tasty, and Jason didn’t like the gum,” Jack recalls.
On rare occasions when Girl Scout cookies or European chocolates are on the table, cash can become part of the equation. Sivan Danziger, 11, from Newton, who has been trading since second grade, does so from a unique position of power when she brings homemade sushi. “It’s usually California roll. It’s the only type I can take to school because it doesn’t have to be as refrigerated,” she says.
Sivan says her dad usually makes two rolls and cuts each one into nine or 10 pieces. That’s a lot of leverage at a lunch table she shares with seven friends who offer lollipops and popcorn in exchange for sushi segments. “Last year I was obsessed with the popcorn. It was just a little bit, but it was so good. I like Movie Theater Popcorn [from Popcorn, Indiana] and popcorn that comes from the movie theater,” she says.
Sivan trades with her parents’ voices in her head, never dealing in fruits and vegetables. “I have to eat them in order to get to eat my dessert,” she says.
But Ellis Denby, 10, from Salem, isn’t shy about unloading something healthy in order to satisfy his sweet tooth. He says he traded a small orange in exchange for a four-pack of chocolate chip cookies.
“I was amazed,” he says. “That’s a good deal.”
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Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.