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.

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.