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  • Fred Smith

COVID has Killed the Lunchtime Trade. That’s Bad for our Kids.

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

I still remember the day in the fifth grade back in 1987 when smooth-talking Stevie “Twinkies” fleeced me out of a Little Debbie cupcake in exchange for a box of stale Cracker Jacks with a heart tattoo for a prize.

It was the probably the worst lunchtime trade of my scholastic career. In retrospect, it wouldn't have been as lopsided of an exchange had my prize turned out to be a compass. But that’s the thing about lunchtime trades...they’re final and provide a chance to learn about yourself and how to interact with others in a world where fate is determined by choice and outcome.

Fast forward about thirty five years.

Every morning before dawn, I pack my eleven-year-old daughter’s lunch. It’s a welcomed ritual that includes sending my pride and joy off to the sixth grade with a healthy main course (thankfully she’s a fan of bow-tie pasta and other easy-peasy fares dad can handle making), a sugary drink posing as fruit juice, and a bag of chips from a variety pack.

As every parent with a school-age kid understands, the immutable laws of the food packaging industry decree that all variety packs of chips MUST contain at least one trio of individually wrapped snacks your child detests and refuses to eat.

“I hate those,” says my daughter as she steals a glance at me packing the loathed snack before returning to her Tik-Tok feed.

“It’s what we have,” I say then proudly add, “Use it as trade bait. Some other kid hates what he has and loves these. Make a deal.” At this point, I figure I’ve just given the best piece of advice I’ll offer to anyone all day.

Then, I hear my daughter calmly say:

“We’re not allowed to trade at lunch, dad. COVID. Duh.”

She’s right as I’ve only recently learned. Exchanging food at my daughter’s school has been outlawed for the entire year.

I live in Florida, which means my daughter dons a mask for the entire school day and attends classes in person. It’s a trade-off, I understand. Masks, say those in favor of mandating them, thwart the spread of the disease. At the same time, as has been well documented in the scientific community, hiding our children’s faces behind masks stunts the social learning that comes from being around others and developing emotional intelligence by reading facial expression.

The banning of lunchtime trade, however, introduces yet another way that the pandemic robs our children of essential learning by denying them the ability to engage in a social practice that’s as old as school lunch itself.

Consider what happens and the experienced gained during the classic lunch trade.

Two kids interact of their own volition. They present their side of the offer. They negotiate. They exchange then reflect on the choices they made and evaluate how they should perform in future trades.

Where else do our kids learn so many valuable skills during the school day?

Better question: How many choices do our children really get to make for themselves during the school day?

The lunchtime trade is the one time during a school day when the child is in complete control of his or her destiny. At least it was before the pandemic. That needs to change. The kids are allowed to take their masks off during lunch. They’re sitting next to each other. Why should they be denied the opportunity to socially engage with one another in attempt to better deal what they’ve been given and pursue happiness by improving their personal circumstances?

Isn’t that what school exists to do--prepare children for what they’re going to be doing for the rest of their lives?

The free and open lunchtime trade market is an organic rite of passage that allows any willing child to participate in a school-time activity through which they learn real-life skills while also learning about themselves and others.

Banning lunchtime trade in the name of public health safety will yield unintentional consequences whose damage likely won’t be realized until it’s too late.

I looked ol’ Stevie Twinkies up on Facebook not long ago. He’s a financial adviser. Could have called that one back in 1987. As a fifth grader, he understood the lunchtime market and was a master at sealing the deal. Looks like he’s built on those skills and done quite well for himself and his family.

I became the writer who remembers the drubbing and cared enough to put words to screen so others can understand what’s currently at stake in addition to the myriad tragedies COVID has already dealt.

On that day way back in 1987, I ended up on the losing end of the classic lunchtime trade and received my first lesson in caveat emptor, which in the 1980s elementary school cafeteria loosely translated to “Black, trade backs!”

I’d do it again in a second...except this time I’d make Stevie thrown in a pack of Nutty Buddies.


Fred Smith took his lumps on the lunchtime trade market while attending elementary school in the mid-late 1980s in Miami, Florida. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is available on and other retailers.


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