Food Nazis Invade First Grade

When my daughter’s health-conscious South Jersey school issued a ban on cupcakes, parental grumbling gave way to grudging acceptance. Until two moms flouted the rules—and the flour went flying.

“I WAS THE MEANIE,” admits Principal Smith, sitting in her office months later.

Really, she was more hard-ass than mean. It didn’t take long for Edison’s parents to find out that another elementary-school principal in the district had made an exception for his school’s Friendship Feast, meaning­ those kids got to eat their high-fructose-corn-syrup hearts out. And Smith was also a little misleading. As it turned out, the state policy—the one she told us back in August that our school needed to “be compliant with”—actually had an exception written into it for birthdays and school celebrations.

“The state is more lenient than we have become,” the principal explains. “We have that right. But parents have gotten so creative. Do you know about the ice packs? One of the first graders brought them in for his birthday—ice packs in all kinds of fun animal shapes. The kids loved them.”

She sure was right. Blair loved her little red bear/alien/amoeba ice pack from Isaac’s birthday. She also loved the plastic test tube with a raisin inside and instructions for doing a science experiment that would make the raisin dance. Educational and nutritional! “There’s so much pressure,” I told the principal, half joking, half needing to pop a Klonopin. “Now I have to do something for Blair’s birthday that’s as cool as dancing raisins. Making cookies was so much easier.”

“But that’s what’s great about our new policy,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything at all!”

And that, right there, was the real ­problem—why we parents had our cupcake tins in a bunch, and why the principal couldn’t understand why we’d become snack-food delinquents. Cupcakes didn’t have any emotional currency for her.

She had 160 kids to worry about.

I had one.

I can only remember one thing about being in first grade: My mother and I made cut-out heart-shaped cookies to send in for the Valentine’s Day class party. We sprinkled them with red colored sugar, and they said, “I love you” on them, which made me a little nervous since I actually did love David Ashton who sat next to me, but I didn’t quite want him to know it just yet. She lined a shoebox with tin foil and then let me stack the cookies inside, which made me feel pretty responsible, considering the risk of breakage. The memory has one sentence attached to it in my brain: “My mom was great.”

I want my kids to think that, too.

This new food policy messed with my image of the parent I wanted to be. It took away one of the opportunities I had to ensure that in 33 or so years, my kid might look back and think that I wasn’t just a hag who screamed at her every 13 seconds to brush her teeth and find her shoes and practice her spelling words and stop hitting her sister, which is how I spend 99 percent of my time. Or at least it feels that way.

Sending in birthday treats, or banana bread for the Friendship Feast, made me feel like a good mom. Maybe just for that day. And when Blair opened her shoebox, those cookies said, “See, kid, you are special to me. See, I’m not so bad after all. See, we baked these together and painted them with icing made from egg whites, which will probably send three of your classmates into anaphylactic shock, but … well … see?”

And so the Great Cupcake War was over. Until, at the science fair a few weeks ago, another mom whispered in my ear, “I brought cupcakes.”

“Are you insane?” I said, nodding toward the table where Principal Smith was sitting, watching some students demonstrate the absorbency of various paper towels. “It was for my kid’s science project,” she explained. “Really. It was. I’m so going to get in trouble.”

She looked over toward her daughter’s display and back at the principal, weighing the risk. Then she shrugged her shoulders: “Oh well.”


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  • Sean

    As a subscriber, I will surely be skipping right over these “suburbanista” articles from here on out. Yikes.

  • Dolores

    to have so much energy to focus on a cupcake ban and what it means to YOU. Must be nice to be so ignorant to think baking makes you a good Mom. Must be nice to have absolutely NO experience with Juvenile diabetes or food allergies and be able to make flip comments regarding both. Must be nice to get paid for spreading your IGNORANCE.

  • Dave

    I tried to subscribe to Philadelphia magazine online but because of a foreign address could not.

    It seems with articles like this cupcake issue I’m not missing too much. Carry on.

  • Cathy

    Are we teaching our children that if they don’t agree with the rule just go behind the back of the teacher or principal and do what you want to do? Sneaking around is the way to go? It sure seems as though this is what the article is trying to say.

  • Shirley

    What is so wrong about letting little children eat a cupcake or cookie for a birthday or other party? Over-protective parents do their kids no favors for coping in the real world. My husband is a juvenile diabetic who managed to emotionally survive eating a substitute treat at parties. My grown sons went to Edison Elementary School in Westmont and – shock! ate cupcakes at school parties! If someone else’s child couldn’t eat them, that child’s parent sent in something for his or her child. No big deal. They learned that some children were allergic or diabetic. This story is not about the author’s thinking baking makes her a good mom; it is about letting children enjoy childhood and making some occasions special without ridiculous rules regulating every facet of life.

  • Dolores

    I have no problem with letting kids eat cupcakes, my diabetic son included (that is what insulin is for).

    The tone of the piece comes across as quite selfish, a big fat “Who cares about the consequences — if you don’t like a rule, break it”. “Nevermind, those kids with food allergies, anaphylactic shock is not MY problem.

    The following passage contributes to the myth that food causes Juvenile Diabetes:

    “But in the past year, apparently, that banana bread had morphed into a nutritional bomb, likely to spark a sudden and rampant epidemic of juvenile diabetes. Or something.”

    Juvenile Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and there is nothing a person can do to cause it or prevent it.

  • Trevor

    some of you people are unbelievable! this was an entertaining, informative piece that pokes some fun and shines some light on the current over-protective nature of our society!
    There comes a point where people become so politically correct, so worried about what the 5% want instead of the 95%, so afraid of dodgeball and school dances, hugs, dress codes, inclusion, exclusion, religion, Easter egg hunts, “holiday” parties, gym class, nerds, goths, jocks, bullies and COOKIES that they and their agenda become completely ineffective. This, in turn, creates a situation where their children will end up with a mild to moderate case of social retardation… but hey, what do I know? The issues involve a lot more than just cupcakes, and are indicative of the whole overprotective social dilemma American society seems to be embroiled in. Someday these kids will need to function responsibly in this crazy world, and shielding them every possible thing seems like it will create a pretty unrealistic expectation and disastrous outcome down the line.

  • Jeniffer Sak

    I really can’t live without my iPhone. It has all the add-ons that I could ever want. It also work’s so good that I don’t need anything else.

  • Daddy

    Welcome to our life in the Haddon Township school system. I, for one, wonder how this so called educator is still working. Ms Smith, I think I know why Gov. Christie wants to change things in NJ schools. YOU should not be in a position of administration or leadership in any school system. Just ask the people who struggle under your leadership everyday.