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Do You REALLY Know What Your Kids Are Eating for Lunch at School?

"Wait, where did you get Fruit Loops for lunch?!"

This was the surprising question I found myself asking my third-grade daughter Emerson* during a recent conversation with her and her friend Stella*. We had started off talking about food likes and dislikes, which turned into what seemed like an innocent conversation about eating lunch at school. You know, packed vs. lunch line, sandwiches vs. soup, that sort of thing. What my husband and I found out, however, was that we had no idea what was happening at the third-grade lunch table.

See, our astute 8-year-olds had discovered that packed vs. lunch line didn't have to be an either/or scenario. One of Emerson's best friends, Sally*, had taught her that. Sometimes Sally was still hungry after eating the lunch her mom had carefully packed for her, so she hit up the lunch line, too. Because our public elementary school is in a neighborhood where a large number of kids qualify for free lunches, the city made all the lunches free, so no one needs money to go through the line. Sally showed Emerson and the other kids that no one will stop you from picking up a tray, even if you had entered the cafeteria with a packed meal. Now, you might not want everything on the tray, but the school is required to give you everything to satisfy the nutrition requirements. So Sally (and soon her disciples) would just eat what she wanted—bread, fruit, ice cream, a cookie—and then either just throw the leftovers away (oh, the waste!) or trade them for something else she might like from someone else's lunch.

Which brings us to the Fruit Loops: Emerson and Stella told us, incredulously, that Ben* packed his own lunch every day, and it always consisted of a big baggie of Fruit Loops and sometimes also cookies. (I suspect his parents thought he was packing this as a snack as he also went through the lunch line, but I can't really explain why they allowed him to bring these items. They fear low blood sugar?) Now, Ben, being a young entrepreneur, bartered Fruit Loops for items from other kids' lunches, offering five Fruit Loops for a couple strawberries or 10 for a yogurt (or whatever the going rate was; I couldn't get a straight answer on the black market prices). Of course, Sally, with her extra lunch-line food, was in an excellent position to score a nice number of Fruit Loops. Sometimes the benevolent Ben just gave them away, too. This is how our child ended up eating Fruit Loops at lunch for the better part of the school year without our knowledge.

Of course, there was the usual trading of items between kids as well, though a lot more than I would have expected. There was also a little bit of stealing. One boy, Billy*, loved to half-jokingly steal other kid's lunchboxes and hold them hostage unless the victims gave him something he wanted to eat. Billy also grabbed handfuls of Ben's Fruit Loops before anyone else could get them, licking them to make them unpalatable to anyone else.

All these lunchtime shenanigans were pretty shocking. Here we were thinking that our kid was eating what we packed and hadn't had any treats for the day, but, low and behold, Fruit Loops were a regular staple in her diet—and apparently most of her third-grade class's last year. It's mostly harmless, I guess, but we talked about how important it is to eat a healthy diet and not add in too many sugary treats—and how it's wrong to waste food by taking a full lunch tray just for the special Friday ice cream.

I knew my daughter's day at school was full of many interactions with friends and foes, teachers and staff, that I would never know about, but getting a glimpse into this complicated world that takes up only 30 minutes made me realize just how little I really knew about what happened in the six-plus hours she spent behind those school walls. Despite asking her questions about what happened at school when I picked her up each day or discussing our days at the dinner table each night as a family, her dad and I had never heard anything about these lunchtime trades until the year was practically over.

As Emerson gets ready to start fourth grade, I am making a mental note to ask some specific questions about lunchtime as the year progresses. Of course, I want to know what she's eating, but I also just want to know more about the interesting ways she and her friends are navigating their world. They may only be 9, but it's pretty amazing the things they come up with when they're on their own.

Are your kids trading their carefully packed healthy lunches for treats at school? What lunchtime shenanigans have you heard about? Let us know!

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who can't really blame her daughter for trading cheese sticks for Fruit Loops. They are delicious. Check out Ellen's Etsy shop and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.