Yesterday, after my third-grader’s day of school, I asked her how it went. Of course, her response sang the praises of recess and lunch. Sticking with the theme, I inquired, “Did anyone want your yogurt-covered raisins? That’s a pretty good snack.” She looked at me and stated very matter-of-factly, “We can’t share food, Daddy.”
She’s right. I had forgotten what has become commonplace across American classrooms and cafeterias. Today’s kids don’t share food at school. What you bring or get from the cafeteria is what you eat. I respect and understand the child health issues associated with this policy. Yet, it strikes a different fear in me.
I fear for our country’s next generation of ambassadors, trade representatives and economists. Where do we expect our children to learn the basics of negotiation if they cannot trade food in the school cafeteria?! Will today’s children know how to barter and prioritize? Will they know what to do when faced with scarcity?
I clearly recall key lunchtime conversations at Dolvin Elementary. “What do you want for that oatmeal creme pie? I’ve got homemade chocolate chip cookies!” The cafeteria illustrated the most natural forms of exchange and Pareto optimality. I knew the food preferences of my classmates, and they knew mine. Some would sneak an extra treat to have more bargaining leverage. My most gifted classmates could work a vegetable into their trade for a Hostess product. I have not kept in touch with these talented barterers, but they are probably working on the Middle East peace process as I type.
Negotiation occurs when there is a scarcity of resources—resources that parties value—and if there is a suitable exchange to conduct these negotiations. No sharing of food means no exchange, and to this point, I have not heard of a black market of lunch trading at my children’s school. As I understand it, there is barely enough time to eat, let alone develop the alternative market!
So in the name of education, I make sure to do my part. I barter with my children at dinner. Until they sharpen their negotiation skills, I may end up with an extra dessert, but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make in the name of my children’s, nay, our country’s future. If not, in a decade it may be easier for me to get a good price on a used car, but our country may also be on the wrong side of a deal of Louisiana Purchase proportions.