17 June 2009

An open letter to MeMe Roth

Here is an interesting item from Monday's New York Times.

It is about a MeMe Roth, Manhattan mother of two, and her battle against the New York City schools to combat obesity. She is passionate about this issue, and even runs a group, the National Action Against Obesity, dedicated to combating the epidemic of obesity in this country.

An admirable cause, no?

After reading about her, in this case, I would have to say, no. It is undeniable true that we live in a chubby nation, and there is much evidence that certain health problems are linked to obesity.

However, MeMe Roth is an unfortunate example of what happens when passion for a cause turns into an unhealthy obsession. Ms. Roth is admittedly happy with the quality of lunches served in her children's school. What sets her off is not junk food served at lunch, but all the extracurricular snacks, so to speak, that are the trappings of childhood: the cupcakes and donuts brought in for class celebration of birthdays.

Ms. Roth's children are instructed to place any foods served at school that could be considered unhealthy in a Tupperwear container, which I'm assuming she provides, and her children must carry in their backpacks, along with their binders and folders.

Lets leave aside for a moment the great lengths Ms. Roth is going to to control her children's behavior when she is not around to supervise.

Her daughter must have been subject to great confusion recently when her teacher handed out juice pops for snack. According to the article, "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 episode motivated Ms. Roth to send an angry e-mail to school officials, "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."

It gets better.

"Helene Moffatt, a school safety official, [said] that if [the Roths] 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."

To which Ms. Roth's husband, Ben, replied, “What would that conversation even sound like? ‘We know you guys are dealing with stabbings and shootings, but stop everything: We have a cupcake situation’ ?”

But wait, there's more!

It turns out, the Roth's have a history of hostile outbursts where obesity is concerned. They used to live in Millburn, NJ, 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.”

I guess the Roths considered this sound advice, because they decamped to New York City.

While the Roths still lived in New Jersey, in meetings to discuss the problem of junk food, according to Diane Brady, the principal at the Roth children's school in Millburn, Ms. Roth, “threw candy onto the table and cursed.” It was not the first time, she added, that Ms. Roth had “displayed this hostile behavior.”

"The police were called to a YMCA in 2007 when [Roth] 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.

And now, probably to their surprise and ire, the Roths have found themselves in a similar situation, yet again. This is the point where a reasonable person might notice a pattern of behavior, and take the opportunity to look within, and ask, am I, in any way, contributing to this situation? Anyone, that is, except for the most narcissistic, for whom things are either all about them, or about everyone else but them.

But not MeMe Roth; she is to junk food what PETA is to animal rights; militant to an extreme.

The Roths, in their devotion to the admirable cause of fighting obesity, seem genuinely blindsided by their irrationality, and the potential damage they could be causing to their own children.

I imagine that the Roths are serving up consistently healthy fare at home — nothing but soy spelt vegan fair trade brownies for them at snack time! — and that no one in the family has a weight problem. (The New York Times piece makes note of the fact that Ms. Roth is trim.) And, so, this is really a story about a control freak who lacks enough trust in her own abilities to raise her children well that she must impose her rigid rules on everyone with whom her children come into contact.

For better and for worse, junk food is an integral part of childhood in America, and, I would venture to say, in most wealthy, industrialized countries. One of the pleasures of childhood is that sometimes, you get to gorge yourself on crap. Hopefully not everyday, but on special occasions.

But MeMe Roth is hell bent on imposing her psychosis on her children. I empathize with the conflict and confusion Ms. Roth's poor children must experience every day, when they must SAY NO TO CANDY for fear of invoking their mother's wrath.

And I would not be surprised in the least if as teenagers, her children develop eating disorders. But I bet MeMe Roth would be. She will cry, "How could this happen to me (not her children); I've been so careful, I've tried so hard to teach them well!"

I hope that this never happens, but if that unfortunate day were to come, and I were to meet Ms. Roth at that date in the future, I would say to her, "Look in the mirror."

But in the meantime, she should consider homeschooling; how else could she possibly be assured that every morsel that enters her children's mouths will be 100% nourishing?


  1. Can you imagine an attention whore like that homeschooling her kids? Haaaa! Great post.
    E in Minneapolis (mom to 3)

  2. I applaud MeMe for bringing attention to this important issue. Our schools have become obesogenic environments and we need to change this. It goes beyond the birthday cupcakes and includes the widespread practice of using food as a reward. The tendency toward obesity is directly related to the brain system that is involved in food reward and addictive behaviors. It is estimated that overeating is caused by emotional eating 75% of the time.

    Many teachers view using food rewards as an effective tool, as do many parents. Unfortunately, it is a tool with the serious unintended lesson that approval and acceptance comes in the form of food. This powerful food association leaves many adults struggling to break the cycle of eating to subconsciously recapture feelings of happiness. How often do our children hear the subtle message that food equals approval before it becomes a message that’s hard to escape later in life?

  3. All I can say is BRAVO! I will NEVER believe that MeMe Roth cares about people's health. If she did, she wouldn't take it upon herself to tell perfectly normal, healthy women that they're "overweight" and "unhealthy" simply because they have some meat on their bones, which for some reason she finds offensive. She's fat phobic, and her "action" is not about obesity at all. The hint is in her name: ME ME. She a control freak and an attention whore who is taking childhood away from her children.