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Backstory: Is it really just a bunch of Fluff?

A war over Marshmallow Fluff in schools spurs debate over nutrition and nannyism.

By Ethan GilsdorfCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 2006



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Lisa Olsson says her child eats a variety of foods, most healthy, some less so: rice cakes, cheese, beans, and that old kid-pleaser – peanut butter and jelly. When her 18-month-old son, Roberto, gets older, she will even occasionally let him snack on the one food that has become a symbol of desire and derision in Massachusetts this summer – Marshmallow Fluff.

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"I like Fluff," she says, trawling the aisles of a Shaw's supermarket here with Roberto. "I'm not against it. I'll still keep it as a treat."

Other parents, of course, would consider serving Marshmallow Fluff the nutritional equivalent of letting their toddlers go bungee jumping.

Either way, passions run high in Massachusetts about Marshmallow Fluff, a gooey sandwich spread little-known beyond the kitchen tables and cafeterias of New England. In the vacuum of summer, it has become a Rorschach test of what foods schools should serve to students and the state of nutrition in America.

In case you missed "Fluffgate," here's a summary: A tempest in a baggie blew through the Massachusetts State House in late June, when state Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D) attempted to censor the beloved but nutritionally vapid lunchtime staple. He did so after his son came home from school eating a "Fluffernutter" sandwich: peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff.

Mr. Barrios's amendment to a food nutrition bill would have regulated how often schools could serve Fluff to his children, and anyone else's. In retaliation, state Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D) sponsored a bill making Fluffernutter the state's official sandwich. Fluff, after all, is made by a Massachusetts firm – Lynn-based Durkee-Mower.

Fond of stories about oddball lawmakers, the media whipped the dispute into whitecaps, and Barrios found himself mired in a controversy that pun-happy pundits couldn't resist calling sticky.

In the end, Barrios backpedaled and never filed his amendment, and Ms. Reinstein's bill went nowhere. The result: Fluffgate – an end-of-school snit made from equal parts Cambridge liberal paternalism, local pride over a homegrown product, and garish politics – deflated like a marshmallow in the noontime sun.

The main casualty seems to have been the integrity of the Massachusetts legislature, a body some consider among the most cerebral in the nation, suddenly accused of playing nanny and not taking school nutrition seriously. Or perhaps too seriously. Lawmakers were ridiculed once again for micromanaging their citizens, if not promoting insidious, anti-American ways. Legalized gay marriage, illegal lunches – what next, banning energy-wasting night games at Fenway Park?

Now legislators, nutritionists, school chefs, and parents would just as soon see the Fluff-slinging debate quit sticking to the roofs of local mouths. Even Durkee-Mower won't talk, weary from the publicity. Yet the Great Fluff Spat continues to raise questions about children's eating habits, in the legislature and beyond. Some Massachusetts lawmakers believe it's time to get serious again after a diverting sideshow.

"I think in many ways [Barrios's bill] diminished the importance of the subject matter," says an angry-sounding Rep. Peter Koutoujian, sponsor of a tough piece of school-nutrition legislation moving through the State House. "There are a lot worse things out there than ... I try not to even say the word. I call it the 'F word.' "

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