Meredith Roth didn't mean to create a ruckus. And she certainly didn't intend to set herself up as a social pariah. She was simply worried about all the junk food that her children, ages 6 and 4, were eating at school. "It wasn't just the poor choices in the cafeteria, like a plain bagel with a side of potato chips," says the Millburn, New Jersey, mom. "And it wasn't just the candy that teachers doled out for special occasions. It wasn't even all the cupcakes or doughnuts parents sent in for birthdays and holidays. It was how all those empty calories were adding up, day after day."
Roth complained to a reporter from a local newspaper, expecting that other moms would read the story and take her side. Instead, there was an uproar. School officials dismissed her as a troublemaker, and several neighbors urged her to loosen up. Someone sent her a note calling her a nuisance, and someone else shot off an e-mail making fun of a jogging outfit she wears. "I never expected to stir up that kind of reaction," Roth says.
Though the acrimony in that New Jersey suburb was a bit extreme, similar but more subdued debates are taking place in towns and cities across America. Whether it's in tiny preschool cooperatives or large urban school districts, parents and policy makers are struggling to address the growing problem of junk food in schools. "It's an important public-health issue," says Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has pushed for laws and programs to improve the nutritional quality of food for kids. "Our schools should not be a source of unhealthy foods."
Of course, no parents want their children to eat endless amounts of nonnutritious foods. But there is plenty of discussion about what constitutes junk food, how much reform is necessary, and how much time schools should spend contemplating pizza and potato chips instead of reading, writing, and math.