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.
Printed in New York Times June , 2009