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.



The parents at Thomas Edison Elementary were pissed.

Already we’d watched our little muffins take hit after hit over the past year, what with the Haddon Township School District shaving $3.9 million from its budget (reading program, schmeading program), and then Governor Christie losing that $400 million in federal education funding due to a typo (too bad, sweethearts), and then the union getting so mad about contract negotiations that it discouraged teachers from taking kids on field trips (no Please Touch Museum for you).

But this? This was the last straw:

No more cupcakes.

The blow came in August, in the last paragraph of the “Welcome Back to School” email from principal Eileen Smith: “Due to the increasing amount of food allergies among our students, the childhood obesity epidemic and in order to be compliant with our State and District Nutrition Policies, we will no longer permit birthday snacks/food in school … [or at] class parties throughout the year.” When the message popped up on my iPhone, I swear I heard a dark maternal growl emanate from every open kitchen window in Westmont: “Whaaaaaat?” Nothing? Not even a Rice Krispie Treat for a birthday? Or apple slices for the first grade’s morning snack? Or a clear plastic glove filled with Pirate’s Booty for the class Halloween party? Not a Capri Sun? A fruit kebab? Nothing? Ever again? Ever?

“Can you freaking believe this?” parents squawked everywhere we could—at Crystal Lake Pool, at the ShopRite, in frantic texts. The district’s three elementary-school principals were pummeled with phone calls. A few parents—those whose kids have vicious allergies—were pleased. The rest were not. Do you think birthday cookies are what’s making kids fat? Do you think kids with allergies and their parents are that unprepared? A few parents were personally offended: “Are you trying to tell me how to raise my kids?” The term “police state” was invoked at least once.

“My son needs a granola bar at 10 a.m.!” bellowed one mom at the first PTA meeting in September, staring Principal Smith square in the eye. By then, the administration had come to terms with the fact that perhaps it had gone too far. After all, just a year before, the Parent/Student Handbook had forbade “foods of minimal nutritional value” as defined by the Department of Agriculture. (Just Say No to Water Ice.) So in October, a second email appeared with a new policy attached: There could be food! And that food could be four items: water, fruit, vegetables and soft pretzels (because nothing says “healthy” like a soft pretzel). Oh, and another thing: No dips.

“No dips?” parents groaned for approximately 23 minutes. Then, everyone calmed down. Rules were rules. We hated them, but we understood them and, of course, would follow them. I, for one, moved on to stressing about more pressing matters, namely what to send in for my daughter Blair’s seventh birthday in March. Sure, it was five months away. But I’d need to be creative. Other parents were already sending in replacement loot for birthdays. If another sticker came into my home, or another temporary tattoo, or another seasonal pencil, I might just be forced to post a bitchy rant on Facebook.

And thus, all was again right at Thomas Edison Elementary.

Until November.

When two kindergarten moms went rogue.

IT ALL CAME DOWN TO THAT AGE-OLD CONUNDRUM: If cupcakes are served at the kindergarten’s annual Thanksgiving Friendship Feast and no principal is there to see the cupcakes, are there really cupcakes at the kindergarten’s annual Thanksgiving Friendship Feast?

Here was the thing: Feasting was what the Friendship Feast had always been about. The kids brought in their family’s favorite recipes (Blair and I made Aunt Elaine’s banana bread) to share with their fourth-grade “Kinderbuds” at a party in the All-Purpose Room, much as the Pilgrims and Indians had done lo, so many years ago. 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.

“We weren’t real excited about handing them carrot sticks and saying, ‘Here’s your party!’” says one of this year’s two kindergarten Room Moms, the volunteers charged with planning class parties.

Then someone offered to bring in cupcakes. To be fair, the cupcakes in question, though intended to be served at the Friendship Feast, weren’t exactly for the Friendship Feast. They were, instead, supposed to celebrate the kindergarten teacher’s upcoming maternity leave. Perhaps that distinction—“cupcakes for imminent baby,” as opposed to “cupcakes for holiday celebration that ignores all historical facts of slaughter and land-seizing in exchange for a seriously big meal”—was what prompted this exchange between the kindergarten Room Moms:

“Do you think we’ll get in trouble?”

“I don’t think it’ll be a big deal. We’ll just keep it on the DL.”

Except that the new food policy, and the new new food policy, was anything but on the DL. I seemed to have a discussion about it with another parent every day at 3 p.m. pickup, as we sat at the picnic table watching our kids run around the playground, not burning off the sugar they had not consumed that day. (Unless, of course, they’d used one of their lunch tickets to purchase a Nutty Buddy cone sold by the district’s lunch vendor. But I digress.) Our principal was being so vigilant that she actually sent word to the kindergarten moms about this very event, reminding them there would be no feasting on unapproved foods at the feast. In fact, it would no longer be a Friendship Feast, but a Friendship Festival.

“We weren’t trying to be rebels,” rationalizes one of the moms.

“But we weren’t checking in the cupcakes at the office,” unrationalizes the other.

So on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, the moms avoided the office on their trek to the All-Purpose Room. They brought melon. And grapes. And soft-­pretzel bites. And, of course, they brought those cupcakes, frosted in super-sugary baby pink icing because the kindergarten teacher was having a girl.

But then something unexpected happened: The fourth-grade Room Moms showed up. As the kindergarten moms watched their fourth-grade counterparts set up plates and napkins and water, popcorn and pretzels to share, they began to panic. Somewhere along the way, they realized, they’d made a very bad assumption. Since the Friendship Feast was an event for kindergartners and their fourth-grade Kinderbuds, and since the Friendship Feast was pretty much cancelled, they figured that meant the fourth grade wouldn’t be showing up.

They were wrong.

And that created a very big problem. Everyone knows that when publicly sticking it to The Man, one needs to cover all of one’s bases. In a situation like this, involving small children, that meant keeping the kindergartners close, and the fourth-graders closer. Which is hard to do … when you’ve only brought enough cupcakes for the six-year-olds.

“I don’t know what to do here,” one of the fourth-grade moms whispered to the kindergarten teacher. But by then, the cupcakes had already been removed from the Tupperware and placed on napkins. So the kindergartners ate cupcakes. And the fourth-graders ate popcorn while watching the kindergartners eat cupcakes.

“I was so pissed,” one of the fourth-grade moms told just about everyone. “For Christmas, I’m bringing in a sheet cake!”

But the kindergarten moms got away with it. For about 76 hours.

On Sunday night, Principal Smith fired off an email to them.

“Was I mad?” she reflects now, noting she’d been tipped off by some very tearful fourth-graders. “You bet I was mad.”

She pointed out the seriousness of breaking the rules, then reiterated the policy, which all made sense. They had broken the rules. The moms themselves had started to feel bad—not about the cupcakes, just that they hadn’t brought enough. But the last line of the email swiftly became the shot heard ’round Westmont.

“She threatened us,” says one of the moms. “She said that if we did it again, we’d be stripped of our Room Mom duties.”

“Right!” says the other. “Stripped of our volunteer, no-thanks, takes-more-time-than-we-ever-thought-it-would-take duties. Awesome.”

It came as no surprise to anyone that the PTA meeting two weeks later was standing-room-only. Some of the rumors around town were true: Yes, nasty emails had been sent; yes, the kindergarten and fourth-grade teachers had gotten reamed out; yes, an irate husband had called a school official to defend the honor of his Room Mom wife. Some rumors were fuzzier: The popcorn at the festival was really kettle corn! There were Cheez-Its! And dips! DIPS!

But the parents hoping to witness a smackdown were terribly disappointed. After confirming that the order for spirit wear had been placed and thanking the parents who’d manned the concession stand at the last high-school football game, the PTA president turned the floor over to the principal, who promptly turned it over to the elementary-school nurse. She pleasantly reminded us about obesity and allergies and cavities.

“Getting used to the new policy has its learning curve,” concluded the PTA president. “As volunteers, we all need to abide by the rules.” Just then, a parent rushed in. She was running late. She was also carrying a snack to share: a giant tray of brownies, each with chocolate icing slathered on top.

“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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