Thanksgiving Feast and the Lunchroom Economy

| November 23, 2014

Last week I skipped out of work and joined my sons for their school cafeteria’s annual invite-your-adults-to-lunch event. The flyer that came home (squashed and half shredded by the grueling backpack ride) boasted this fine spread:


Who am I to say no to that?

I found myself waiting with a handful of other parents, all with looks of comingled confusion and eagerness, outside the cafeteria doors. As our second graders came trooping up the hallway in their very best wiggly-bodied facsimile of a line, we joined with them and headed into the lunch line.

It is important to note here that it did, indeed, smell delicious. My memories of the school cafeteria have a decidedly Pine-Sol aroma, but this one… well, it smelled like a Thanksgiving feast.

A few weeks ago, my sons started bringing their lunch to school (long backstory there, which I will share another time). One of the benefits of this is that home-lunchers get to sit and dig in while their classmates point out their preferences from the hot bar to the smiling and saintly-patient cafeteria staff.

I noticed that the lunch line process ate up about half of the time they were scheduled for lunch. I nervously watched the minute hand on that industrial clock on the wall creep closer and closer to time for these kids to head back to class. Fifteen minutes into the half-hour allotted, we were joined by the school-lunchers.

The boy who sat next to us poked at the chunky mess in front of him and asked, “Is this turkey? I thought we were having turkey today?” I confirmed that it was and pointed out the stuffing, greens, mashed potatoes and cobbler. He skewed his mouth at it, took a tentative bite and quickly switched the subject to Minecraft.


(Sorry it’s blurry- I was attempting stealth)

The second graders left, and the fifth grade piled in. My other son spotted me and pointed (with that practicing-to-be-a-teenager embarrassed expression) to another table- where the “cool kids” sit.

The older crew was no faster at getting through the lunch line, but far more determined to finish before the bell. By the time the school-lunchers joined us, the home-lunchers were nearly done and had devolved into that giggling, tickling puppy pile that caused their teachers-assistant to clear his throat sternly at them several times.

Then something remarkable happened. One boy, seemingly finished with his meal, reached into his lunch sack and pulled out two small, perfectly round and glowing orange clementines. He held them, two in a palm, out to the group.

Immediately, they were trying to outbid one another. One school-luncher had eaten half his baked apples, but offered to pay extra the next day. Another proffered his mashed potatoes.

“And what else?” the tangerine-shark cocked his head.

Eventually they settled on mashed potatoes and the tootsie roll hidden inside a coat pocket in trade for the fruit.

In this particular lunchroom economy, fresh fruit has a going rate of two-for-one. My son told me that home-lunchers often bring extra to barter with and asked if it was cool with me for him to bring apples- not the red or the green ones, but those that have both colors- to trade the next day.

I watched the potato-trader shimmy in his seat as he pulled the hide off his win, releasing the citrusy aroma into the air. He smiled right at me as he popped that first tiny segment into his mouth.

“I’ll give you two extra, if you promise to give one away- no charge.”

In the ten minutes left to back-to-class time, I watched only one child at the table finish more than a few bites of food. A few were jostling and talking, paying no mind to their neglected plates, but most were actually trying to cram the food in- as best they could for a group of seven-year-olds distracted by the siren song of Pokemon conversation.

When time was called, the kids got up and toted their soggy paper trays over to the giant waste bins. I quickly whipped out my phone and took a photo of Minecraft-kid’s plate. As you can see, he barely touched his “feast.”

Category: Featured, ZomppaParent

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  1. Amira says:

    You write very well, I was intrigued the whole time and it felt like I was in the lunchroom with you!Took me back to my elementary days and those very short periods of “not-so-great” food. Great post!