Backstory: Is it really just a bunch of Fluff?

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

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.

"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.' "

In fact, another brown bag mainstay, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, isn't much better for kids. You could argue it's worse. In two tablespoons of Fluff are 60 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrates, and 9 grams of sugar. The same amount of grape jelly contains 100 calories, 26 grams of carbs, and 24 grams of sugar.

"I think that Fluff is not something that you want your kids to have on a daily basis, but if it's on whole [wheat] bread with peanut butter, they could do worse," says Josefine Wendel, coordinator for school nutrition with the Cambridge Public Schools, the district where Barrios's child is a student. For her, Fluff raises the same issue as chocolate milk: "You add a little sugar to make it palatable for kids who don't like milk." A school in Orono, Maine, even offers an "almond butter/fluff" sandwich for kids who don't eat peanuts.

The blowout over Fluff will likely cause Cambridge to yank Fluffernutter sandwiches off its menu this fall, says Ms. Wendel. Many other school districts will probably revisit their food policies, and for good reason. The huff over Fluff coincided with a "School Foods Report Card," a state-by-state evaluation of regulations governing the sale of food and beverages outside official school mealtimes: vending machines, school stores, bake sales, and fundraisers. The state received failing marks.

"[Massachusetts] was in good company," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which issued the report. "Twenty-three states got an F. Two-thirds of the states got D's or F's for having weak policies on school foods."

Like many states, Ms. Wootan says, the Bay State relies on toothless and outdated national standards, some dating back to the Truman administration. "They are out of sync with current science. And they are out of sync in terms of where kids get foods on school campuses," she says. For example, they only apply to foods being sold in cafeterias. Now kids get snacks, even entire meals, from vending machines.

Nor is school the only focus of healthiness. "[Students are] not getting fat off the school meals," says Debra Korzec-Ramirez, nutrition education coordinator for the Boston Public Schools. "It's what is happening outside the schools. Kids are spending three, four hours a night on some kind of screen time." (Incidentally, none of the 52,000 meals Boston school cafeterias serve each day contain Fluff – but, Korzec-Ramirez says, it's not for nutritional reasons: "It's tough to spread.")

Supermarkets are so huge, perhaps bringing kids shopping can give them a workout. Korzec-Ramirez used to send her son on a mission racing all around the store to find the cereal with the highest sugar content.

Back at Shaw's supermarket, Kathy Powell of Cambridge, Mass., is restocking her pantry after coming home from vacation. "I want a donut!" cries her son, Shamar, age 6, lunging from the grocery cart for a box of Frosted Flakes. Every food option, literally, seems up for grabs. "We're not buying donuts," she firmly replies.

Once a Cambridge Public Schools student herself, Ms. Powell didn't know the district made Fluff available to her son. But she finds the issue odd anyway. "It's just a sandwich," she says. "It's not like he won't eat it at home." Or maybe he won't. "I don't eat it!" Shamar shouts.

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