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Mother's Fight Against Junk Food Puts a School on Edge

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NY Times: MeMe Roth, a publicist and an Upper West Side mother of two, is getting really, really mad -- "and I do not mean angry," she clarified. "I mean mad, like crazy." Ms. Roth is being driven mad by Public School 9, where her children are in second and fourth grades, and it seems that P.S. 9, in turn, is being driven mad by Ms. Roth.

Ms. Roth, who runs a group called National Action Against Obesity, has no problem with the school lunches provided at the highly regarded elementary school on Columbus Avenue and 84th Street. What sets her off is the junk food served on special occasions: the cupcakes that come out for every birthday, the doughnuts her children were once given in gym, the sugary "Fun-Dip" packets that some parent provided the whole class on Valentine's Day.

"I thought I was sending my kid to P.S. 9, not Chuck E. Cheese," Ms. Roth, a trim, impassioned 40-year-old from Atlanta, said in an interview. "Is there or is there not an obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country?"

When offered any food at school other than the school lunch, Ms. Roth's children -- who shall go nameless since it seems they have enough on, or off, their plates -- are instructed to deposit the item into a piece of Tupperware their mother calls a "junk food collector."

This solution seemed to be working pretty well until Ms. Roth's daughter dutifully tried to stick a juice pop -- a special class treat from her teacher on a hot day -- into her plastic container. The teacher told Ms. Roth's daughter to eat it or lose it, and according to the child pointed out that she had seen the young girl eating the corn chips served with school lunch -- did that not count as junk food?

This prompted one of Ms. Roth's infamous heated e-mail messages to the school. Which, in turn, prompted administrators to pull her daughter out of class to discuss the juice pop incident, which only further infuriated Ms. Roth, who said her daughter felt as if she'd been ambushed.

What followed was the kind of meeting in which bureaucracy masquerades as farce, or maybe it's the other way around. Ms. Roth and her husband, Ben, say they were told by Helene Moffatt, a school safety official, that if they considered the regular dissemination of junk food a threat to their children's health and safety -- and indeed, they do -- they should request a health and safety transfer, something that generally follows threats of violence. That transfer request, they were told, would also require filing a complaint with the police.

"What would that conversation even sound like?" asked Mr. Roth, who works in marketing. " 'We know you guys are dealing with stabbings and shootings, but stop everything: We have a cupcake situation' ?"

Both parents left feeling they were being pushed out of P.S. 9, which they perceive as exhausted by Ms. Roth's intense lobbying for, among other things, permission slips for any food not on the official lunch menu. It would not be the first time: The Roths previously lived in Millburn, N.J., where, after Ms. Roth waged war on the bagels and Pringles meal served to kids at lunch, received e-mail from one member of the P.T.A. that said, "Please, consider moving." That was in 2006, and P.S. 9 has been hearing about its transgressions against healthy eating pretty much ever since.

"The community is very concerned," the principal, Diane Brady, wrote in an e-mail message. At the meeting with Ms. Moffatt, Ms. Brady said that Ms. Roth "was hostile" and "threw candy onto the table and cursed." It was not the first time, she added, that Ms. Roth had "displayed this hostile behavior."

Ms. Roth's message is hardly outlandish: There is an obesity epidemic, and there are probably better ways to celebrate a child's birth than sending a passel of kids into sugar shock in the middle of math class.

Her extreme methods have earned her attention before: The police were called to a Y.M.C.A. in 2007 when she absconded with the sprinkles and syrups on a table where members were being served ice cream. That was Ms. Roth who called Santa Claus fat on television that Christmas, and she has a continuing campaign against the humble Girl Scout cookies, on the premise that no community activity should promote unhealthy eating.

"She has some valid points, but the way she delivers them is abrasive," said Jim Stanek, a fellow P.S. 9 parent, who responded angrily to an e-mail message Ms. Roth sent to around 75 parents saying that the physical education teacher who served her children doughnuts probably "couldn't pass a standardized phys ed. test."

It is too bad that Ms. Roth's suggestions come in e-mail messages strung with too many capital letters and undiplomatic, if accurate, scare tactics (on the threat of diabetes--"we're talking amputations, blindness, endless finger pricking, endless disabilities"). It would probably benefit New York's students, and no doubt Ms. Roth's family, if she tried to catch a few flies with honey. Make that agave nectar.

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9 comments so far | Post a comment now
chris June 17, 2009, 10:23 AM

I agree with the message but maybe she should try a different approach. I subbed in a first grade class this past Monday (the second to last day of school in our town) and 3 boys went down to get breakfast and came back with 7 honeybuns, 4 chocolate milks and 6 apple juices between the three of them! I was shocked and asked the teacher about it and she said that as long as the kids have money they can get what they wanted. She also doesn’t agree with it -kids are hyper enough these days without all that sugar-but she said theres nothing to stop it. Well the rest of the day went just as bad. The kids watched a movie for 2 hours, went to lunch, went to music, had an ice cream party (with all the toppings) then we went outside to blow bubbies and then they got ice pops and cupcakes. I know those kids had to be bouncing off the walls at home later that night. I’m all for our kids having fun and celebrating the end of the school year but we really need to teach our kids that fun doesn’t equal eating junk food.

Momma June 17, 2009, 3:04 PM

“…..I agree with the message but maybe she should try a different approach.”

Such as? Her current approach may be rub folks the wrong awy, but at least it’s getting public attention and that’s the whole point. I applaud the handful of parents out there who are willing to sacrifice being liked and/or popular for the sake of bringing attention to a meaningful cause that would otherwise continue to be overlooked. Sometimes, being a b**ch is the only way to bring about change.

kris June 17, 2009, 3:20 PM

OMG this lady is over the top and funny in s Side Show Bob fanatical sort of way. I get her point and passion and where she coming from. I just think that you will draw more flies with honey instead of vinegar. She is stepping on all the toes she will need in the future, if she is to bring about positive change when making junk food available to school age children. But hey it does make for some juicy gossip at the PTA Meetings.

anonymous June 17, 2009, 4:49 PM

I think she has the right approach with the wrong delivery. She should be enlisting the help of the PTA and other parents and speaking with the school, but from this article it sounds like her behavior might be a bit inappropriate. I like the idea of permission slips for non-school food. If a parent chooses to not allow their child the “special” food they could pack an extra parent-approved snack that they can eat while everyone else has the junk food provided by another parent. She has every right to be concerned about what her kids are eating. There’s a reason there are so many overweight americans these days, people don’t pay attention to what they eat.

kram n June 17, 2009, 9:03 PM

Her first name says it all: Me-Me. You deal with your kids and let the rest of us deal with ours as we wish. Can we call her the CupCake Nazi?

Miranda June 17, 2009, 9:42 PM

While I agree that Ms. Roth has SOME good ideas, I think she is also setting her children up for eating disorders. She once went on television stating that she will not eat a single thing until she does her daily workout, even if it means not eating until dinner time. I’m sorry, but as someone who used to suffer from disordered eating, that is textbook anorexic behavior.

Samantha June 18, 2009, 11:23 AM

If she doesn’t want her children being taught nutrition from other parents, then she should stop telling other parents how their children’s nutrition should be. Denying children birthday cake and the simple childhood pleasures is only going to disable them more in life then obesity ever could. When can a child start making their own decisions? There will be other temptations in life our children won’t be able to handle if we leave no temptations now. It’s the hand in the cookie jar story. “A cookie after dinner, not before.” Yet, they get their hand stuck in the cookie jar because they were tempted. If mother’s remove that cookie jar all together how will the children learn between right and wrong and how to make good decisions? All children learn differently- some learn by listening, some learn by doing, etc. Do you really think that all children will stay away from something bad just because we say so? Your child should be able to see the sweets in school and make up their own minds whether or not they should eat it. If they eat it and you told them not to they should be in trouble because it was their choice to make a bad decision. Don’t eliminate the choice all together because then you are punishing all the children before any choice was involved. If this woman wants to take away the only few fun things about school for her children that’s fine, but leave everyone else’s parenting out of it. My mom made treats for my parties, I’m going to make them for my kids’ parties, and I don’t believe that one upset parent should be allowed to take away from a whole community and their traditions.

somedude1 June 18, 2009, 3:41 PM

I feel sorry for her kids. They won’t ever learn about moderation and will probably grow up with eating disorders. When people take away my choices, I get upset.

Kami  June 18, 2009, 5:00 PM

All she wants is for her permission to be asked prior to her children being served junk food at school. This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all- in fact, as a parent, I would like the same consideration also. She is seeking permission slips for junk food. It seems like a simple request. I wold get pushy also if I felt a simple request was being ignored.

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