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Can this spread be stopped?

Lawmaker wants schools to put a lid on Fluff

By Philip McKenna
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2006

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The escalating war on junk food in schools has targeted a new enemy -- that gooey, sugary, and often irresistible sandwich spread known to children everywhere as Fluff.

Outraged that his son was served peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches at a Cambridge elementary school, state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios , a Democrat, said he will offer an amendment to a junk-food bill this week that would severely limit the serving of marshmallow spreads in school lunch programs statewide.

``A Fluff sandwich as the main course of a nutritious lunch just doesn't fly in 2006," Barrios said. ``It seems a little silly to have an amendment on Fluff, but it's called for by the silliness of schools offering this as a healthy alternative in the first place."

The measure is sure to rile fans of the Fluffernutter, the Fluff-and-peanut butter sandwich that has long been a sticky favorite of New England children including Barrios's son, Nathaniel, a third-grader at King Open School in Cambridge. Even some nutritionists say it makes little sense to single out Marshmallow Fluff, which was concocted by a Massachusetts man before World War I and is still made by a family-owned business in Lynn.

``I've been eating Fluff nearly my entire life" said Don Durkee, the 80-year-old president of Durkee-Mower Inc., whose father started the company with a business partner in 1920, after having bought the recipe for $500.

``The irony of this is Marshmallow Fluff happened to be invented in Somerville, Barrios's home district," Durkee said.

Svelte and fitness-conscious, Barrios is careful about his own diet -- he ate mostly eggs for breakfast for a time during the Atkins craze -- and is known for promoting salsa dancing lessons. So he was understandably startled to see his son ask for Fluff at their Cambridge home.

``I'm at home and my son wants to make a Fluffernutter sandwich," Barrios recalled. ``It turns out the Cambridge schools offer this as a nutritious lunch alternative to the meal of the day." Noting that Fluff is 50 percent sugar, he added, ``I'm not sure we should be even calling it a food."

Cambridge schools are not the only ones that offer Fluff. An informal poll conducted by Barrios's staff found that at least one school in 14, out of 26 Massachusetts school districts surveyed, served it in their lunchrooms.

Spurred by skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, many states are considering legislating sweets out of schools. Already this year, Iowa, Indiana, and Mississippi have passed bills regulating school nutrition. An additional 28 states, including Massachusetts, are debating similar measures. And last month the nation's soft-drink makers agreed to remove non-diet sodas from elementary and middle schools.

The bill in the Massachusetts Senate would prohibit most candy bars and potato chips, as well as soft drinks, from vending machines in elementary schools. Barrios felt that as long as they were removing junk food from vending machines, lawmakers should also restrict Fluff -- a concoction of corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white, and vanilla flavoring -- from the lunchroom.

Initially, the senator said he planned to seek a complete ban on marshmallow spreads from the school lunch program. But now his proposed amendment would limit the sugary foodstuff to being served once a week. Barrios said he decided not to call for a complete ban after consulting with other legislators.

Senator Richard T. Moore, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Finance and sponsor of the junk food bill, supports Barrios's amendment in theory, but thinks it can go further.

``We don't want to dismiss the idea as `fluff,' but we think we can go beyond that for something more comprehensive," Moore said in an interview. The Uxbridge Democrat said he is considering adding language to the bill to set more general nutritional standards for such things as sugars, fats, and portion sizes in school lunch programs, rather than targeting specific foods. Moore said he expects the bill to be brought up for a vote on the Senate floor in the next couple of weeks.

Health advocates question the targeting of marshmallow spreads.

``It seems a little odd to add this amendment," said Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids , a nonprofit organization in Skokie, Ill., that promotes good nutrition and physical activity in schools. ``There is no need to call out specific foods, like Fluff, as the school lunch program of Massachusetts already meets strong nutrition standards. As part of the school meal program, maybe Fluff is just fine. Maybe kids are having it instead of jelly."

Generations of New England children have grown up eating Fluff, which H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower originally called Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff when they went into business in 1920. They had bought the recipe from Archibald Query, who made the marshmallow cream in the kitchen of his Somerville home and sold it door to door, before going out of business because of wartime supply shortages.

It wasn't until about 1960 that an advertising agency coined the Fluffernutter name for the peanut butter and Fluff sandwich. Today, the company sells 1.7 million pounds of Fluff a year in the United States as well as in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa.

But in Cambridge, children will no longer be served Fluff at school. The district has decided to remove it from its menu when classes resume in September.

The King Open School's principal, Tim Groves , is delighted to see Fluff go, but says schools have to be careful when phasing out sweets. When the school recently removed sugary cereals, it first let students vote on acceptable alternatives.

``It's important that the district provides food that is nutritious," Groves said. ``But it's also important that we provide foods that people eat."

King students couldn't agree more. ``A lot of my friends eat Fluffernutter because they don't like school lunch," said 12-year-old Simone Rivard , a sixth-grader . She isn't a big fan of the marshmallow spread herself, but doesn't think it should be restricted either. ``There shouldn't be laws saying what you can and can't eat," she said.