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Swapping food in the school cafeteria: what were the favorite trades? Remember any fun experiences?

In Junior high, circa 1970, the lunch ladies made chocolate sheet cakes with thick chocolate icing. They sold them from a separate stand in the dining room, along with extra milks. A 4" square of cake was 12 cents, and milk 3 cents.

I'm not a person with a heavy sweet tooth. The icing was way too sweet for my tastes. But the cake without icing was delicious to me.

I discovered that many of my classmates had already entered the full blown phase of their sugar addiction. I would buy a piece of cake and a milk, sit down, turn the cake icing-side-down on the saucer, and pull the cake free of the icing. I'd finish the moist cake, finish my milk, then show the icing to a sugarhead and offer to let them have that sweet thick elixir if only they would go to the cake stand, buy a square, bring it back and give me the cake, so then they'd have two glistening saucerfulls of icing. Sensing the market could bear more, I'd add "Oh, and you'll need to buy me a milk, too."

So, for fifteen cents, I scored thirty cents worth of cake (minus icing) and two milks. All the mark got was cavities and two slabs of icing, at an outlay of 26 cents for two cakes.

Through those cafeteria years, I found that if I focused on sweets as the legal tender, then any item of the meal, even the entree, was easily gotten. Sometimes a trade required a few additional Hershey's Kisses or Pixie Sticks that I carried in my book bag as wampum.

Sometimes the day's item was so unpopular that I'd get them for free, just for doing them the favor of getting it off their plate so they wouldn't have to look at it. Turkey fricassee was an easy gimme, as were pinto beans from those that feared the later classroom flatulence. On days of canned spinach or kale I'd ask the lunch ladies for an extra bowl, because those greens were a sure sweep.

Then came the last two years of high school, where I brown-bagged it. We sackers ate in the lounge, not the full cafeteria. This was a tougher market, since everyone had a chance to have input each morning about the contents of their lunch bag. Those folks who made their own sandwiches usually kept their stuff, but those who were coddled at that age to have a parent make it gave up the goods a lot easier.

By now, given the advanced savvy of these older adolescents, I'd had to shift my barter goods away from Pixie Sticks and move up to Halloween size candy bars. But addiction is a horrible thing, and the sugar fix meant that I could easily trade a bar for a savory sandwich. Snickers seemed to have the most appeal, and it assuaged my guilt a bit as I knew the peanuts would give them at least a little protein for the afternoon as I freed them of that beautiful ham or tuna sandwich. With bag lunches it was easy to develop some regular customers, some of whom started asking Mom for two sandwiches in the sack, not telling her that one would be converted to Snickers.

So what were your experiences with swaps? Were there certain items that traded easier? What were the outright freebies?

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  1. In 1960's elementary school the number one item was a fizzie. A fizzie was a flavored alka seltzer type tablet meant to be dropped in water and drank, but it was a weak flavored drink and we soon discovered that it was much tastier cut in pieces and dropped on the tounge. A quarter or half fizzie could command a bag of chips or pack of twinkies. A whole fizzie and you could write your own ticket. My mother should have wised up and sent me to school with nothing but fizzies, but they were strictly rationed.

    1 Reply
    1. re: James Cristinian

      Everything old is new again!


      (they're back on the market)

    2. I would trade just about anything on my tray for another little carton of milk. Anyone remember the cartons that were flat on top and had the corner that folded back? Talking early '60's.

      2 Replies
      1. re: mrbigshotno.1

        Yes, with the little foil strip to drink off over the cardboard. They always seemed to open so much easier than the boxes with peaks. In Kansas City, I think they came from Zarda Dairy when I was in elementary school.

        For the original question, I could swap cheese curls for almost anything except pizza. Enough so that an extra big bag in my lunch bag could net an entire lunch.

        1. re: mrbigshotno.1

          Also in early 60s, the clear glass jars of milk with a wide 2"mouth, sealed by a cardboard disc, about 1/8" thick. The disc had a peel-up tab, with which to pull out the disc.

          These disappeared earlier than the square cardboard carton with foiled corner opener on the flat top.

          Late 60s came the dominance of the A-roof carton, still in occasional use today.

        2. In grade school, my chocolate milk for your tater tots.

          1. Oh boy. Personally, I HATE tater tots, and I was a never a big fan of fries either, so I would often trade those for something yummy, whatever struck my fancy, because kids at my school really loved those fried potatoes in any form!

            1. Wait, am I at chowhound? You philistines actually ate that cafeteria compost? Eeewww! I used to regularly trade pretzel sticks for Paul L's mom's spice cake. And nobody ever traded for stuff off the tray

              7 Replies
              1. re: BiscuitBoy

                I'm sure that a lot of this is based on how old you are and where you went to school. In elementary school, our food was actual food prepared by actual humans and a lot of it was very good. By the time I was in junior high and high school that was all gone and everything came wrapped in foilized paper. I grew up in Kansas City and am 47 now - no spring chicken. Maybe your eeewww! is based on the fact that you did not have this background and also are not aware that your comment sounds more than a bit insulting.

                1. re: tomatoaday

                  Oh no, my grade school cafe made stuff right there, institutional style and a l l that entails. Just kinda funny how most folks here would turn their nose up at mcd's burger, but have fond memories of cafeteria food. Insulting? I guess I have a different, um, standard of food quality than the next guy

                  1. re: BiscuitBoy

                    But most folks here aren't 7 years old. I won't voluntarily set foot in a McDonald's today (not that I go around broadcasting this as evidence of my superior taste), but as a kid, man, I loved those cafeteria tacos, and Happy Meals too. Cafeteria food seemed exotic -- it was different than the Indian food I always got at home, and being handed a dollar to buy lunch was rare and exciting. I also totally sympathized with that scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" where all the blond girls with PBJs laugh at the little Greek girl's lunch -- I always felt like a normal kid for once when I got to buy the institutional school lunch, instead of having to pull out my curry-soaking-through-Wonder-bread sandwich. Cultural issues aside, people have fond memories of cafeteria food because it's what we ate as little kids. Same reason lots of chowhounds confess to still loving Kraft mac and cheese.

                    1. re: Pia

                      I don't know a soul who has "fond" memories of cafe food, but that's what makes us all different and interesting. At 7 yrs old my feeling was eeeewwww, and I stand by that today, no apologies

                      1. re: BiscuitBoy

                        I guess I have an um, different, standard about food quality than you as well. Doesn't make yours better than mine or anyone else's. Maybe your pretzel sticks and Paul's mom spice cake were the flavor pinnacles of your neighborhood culinary world. I'm sure that there is stuff you ate then and eat now that would elicit an eeewwww from others. I'm just as sure that a Chowhound wouldn't try to make you feel like a culinary clod for your choices.

                  2. re: tomatoaday

                    How old indeed! I went to Overland Park grade school in the late 40's and early 50's. I brought my lunch but traded it on the days the cafeteria served spinich with those chopped hard boiled eggs in it. I LOVED that stuff and no one else could stand it. I ended up with a plate heaped with green stuff with white bumps and I was in hog heaven. I ate every spoonful. Everyone looked on in wonder. It was kinda like Cool Hand Luke and his hard boiled eggs. It was quite often served with chipped beef on toast which I also loved.

                  3. re: BiscuitBoy

                    I actually used to go back for seconds for that pre-mixed spaghetti (with the noodles that were already pre-cut), and for the salisbury steak.

                  4. The 5 of us would brown bag it, and with the maid's kid, she had to fix 6. I noticed early on she was double-meating her son's sandwich, so I would furtively wait for a moment when I could do the old switcheroo.
                    As concerns the fear of flatulence from pinto beans you noted, back in the 60's even water pistols were a hangin' offense in school, and well timed and targeted flatulence was one of perilously few weapons we had.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Veggo

                      Plus, the flats offered anonymity if necessary, or, when you chose, a loud and proud overt kill.

                    2. Not so much a trade, but at my junior high, they only served french fries on Friday. Kids would save up for a plate, but once they brought them into the cafeteria to eat, their "friends" would descend on them like locusts. You were lucky to eat 1/10th of what you purchased.

                      So one guy I knew started dressing his fries with ketchup, salt, and vinegar. And sweet relish. And mustard. And pepper. And onions. I don't know if he really liked them that way, but no one else would touch them!

                      1. It definitely depends on where you grew up and what era. In the 70's as a ten year old in the midwest, that was the time period for instant food, jello, tater tots, etc. Think Tang, Pixie stix and all that weird stuff. That was considered normal as was Ding Dongs, Cheetos, etc. and those mini packages of things like Fruit Loops and Sugar Pops.

                        Having said that, I grew up with a mother who was always making sure our lunches had plenty of farm fresh produce in our sacks. Nothing spelled UNCOOL like a bag or orange carrot sticks.

                        I longed for a a mini bag of Cheetos. I couldn't GIVE away my carrots or boxed raisins. That was just a difffernt era.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: natewrites

                          ...and, after posting my reply, I read yours and laughed at the carrots and cheetos remark. I was in the same boat and would have loved having cheetos just once a week at least!

                        2. I DO remember despising white beans and cornbread, so salty, and the meat was anything but ham. However what all united us was pizza day.

                          And I remember that ice cream was sold only once a week. I loved those orange push ups (gross) in second grade and Drumsticks in fourth grade.

                          1. Fresh fruit was always a freebie. Even at that age (3-6 grade) watching the cans fill to overflowing struck me as wrong and wasteful. I was lucky-went to a very, very small-town where, until the high-school snack bar attack, the cafeteria served really really good, fresh food. The extra-lucky part came in because I was always a savories person, not a sweets-eater, and I could generally trade off to anyone for their main course. My favorite was Lumberjack Stew (you guessed it, a logging town.) Lunches that my mother made couldn't be traded for love nor money, except for one item: dried salted soybeans, which one little girl couldn't get enough of.

                            1. I never really had anything to trade other than string cheese. It wasn't like today's string cheese which is more like a slender stick of cheese. It was much larger and was easy to shred into a million, billion thin bits. I could peel off a big section and win a pack of cheetos! We never had junk food like chips so that was a real treat.

                              I actually liked my sack lunches which consisted of fresh carrots or celery, a fruit, cheese and a sandwich. I requested that my dad make the sandwich because he made half liverworst and half cream cheese that had been blended with strawberry jam. Oh, man, that was the absolute best! If my mom made the sandwich, I'd have icky louis buddig "meat" and that was something I would try to trade.

                              I had change to buy milk from the vending machine but often bought the slices of melon instead. They had honeydew and cantaloupe. If they ran out of melon, I'd use my string cheese to bribe a trade for the melon slice that someone beat me to.

                              For the short period that I had cafeteria lunches, I would give the whole entree of turkey tetrazzini for anything, even just for milk. I had to do this because it smelled like arm pits and was entirely inedible. Truly, it was an abomination. I think the one thing we all loved and would not trade except for maybe a snickers bar, was the sloppy joe. Oh, man, we ate that up and wished there was more.

                              1. Seoul, Korea, circa mid-90s:

                                Everyone brought lunch from home, in little thermal boxes/pails, and we all ate in the classroom with our desks pushed into little groups. Lunch was usually plain rice and two or three banchan to go along with it, with the occasional kimchi fried rice and a package of dried seaweed (gim/nori) making an appearance as well. Meat items were premium banchan by default, though the preferences ranged wildly from the Spam aficionados to the more traditional fare like jangjorim (beef simmered in soy sauce). Kong/bean sprout namul and spinach namul was universally disliked, IIRC.

                                The tendency was to trade away Mom's banchan repertoire for another mom's banchan repertoire. My own mother was terribly heavy-handed with any sort of egg wash/dip - to this day French toast and I aren't on speaking terms - so I would swap the eggy banchan with anything else that caught my fancy. It helped to have an accomplice whose own mother wasn't aware that eggs were potential banchan ingredients. :) It also helped to have swift and accurate chopstick skills to a. fight off lightning-fast banchan vultures and b. occasionally poach some of the good stuff for yourself.

                                The school eventually opened a little snack stand, where my classmates bought things like red bean buns or soboro (kinda like pineapple buns, I guess?), but lunchtime was still all about the banchan market... hehe.

                                1. My worst experience was the time a classmate approached me and offered his chicken sandwich for my bottle of Pepsi. It turned out to be mostly hard white greasy chicken fat between two pieces of bread. What a life lesson that was!

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: Wiley

                                    How true. One learns to always look a gift sando in the mouth.

                                    1. re: FoodFuser

                                      I think Wiley is getting close to the light-spirited intent of your post, which was certainly not to be condescending about school food or those who were condemned to eat it. Hey, if school lunches were a card game, we were all dealt deuces. The challenge was for pre-teens to develop basic horse trading skills and end up with three of a kind. And for two kids who started with trash and treasure to find each other and barter so that each walked away with two treasures. Early life skills.

                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        Absolutely agreed as to the spirit of the post, and the hope for further nostalgic responses.

                                        But dang it, dude, you brought in the poker analogy. Which segues right to that single time where a cafeteria glitch gave several cases of ptomaine poisoning. Given the heavy use of the porcelain throne, we called that event the "Royal Flush".

                                        Thankfully we avoided any more large or wide-spread poisoning events, which might have resulted in a porcelainic "Full House".

                                        I prefer not to imagine the image of a "Four of a Kind".

                                          1. re: Veggo

                                            I swapped for a few sandwiches in the lunch lounge, during a few especially escalated poker games. But the swap of the sandwich was always paramount. I just had to get my hands and my mouth around that thick-slicecd ham sandwich that the newbie plebe brought unwittingly into the lunch lounge. Such a sando was destined to be redirected in my direction.. I am embarrassed to admit that long sleves to hide the Kings and Aces were involved. There might even have been a wee bit of sleight of hand. But I alwaya got the sando.