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.”