Preschooler Forced to Eat Chicken Nuggets After Bag Lunch Fails State Inspection

The nanny state’s food police cited a preschooler for bringing a turkey sandwich to school, instead of getting the nutritious processed fried chicken parts being sold by the school.

Carolina Journal (“Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria “Nuggets” – State agent inspects sack lunches, forces preschoolers to purchase cafeteria food instead“):

A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because a state employee told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the agent who was inspecting all lunch boxes in her More at Four classroom that day.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs — including in-home day care centers — to meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, even if the lunches are brought from home.

When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.

The girl’s mother — who said she wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter from retaliation — said she received a note from the school stating that students who did not bring a “healthy lunch” would be offered the missing portions, which could result in a fee from the cafeteria, in her case $1.25.

This sounds outrageous. And . . . a little fishy. Reading further into the story:

“With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that’s the dairy,” said Jani Kozlowski, the fiscal and statutory policy manager for the [Division of Child Development]. “It sounds like the lunch itself would’ve met all of the standard.” The lunch has to include a fruit or vegetable, but not both, she said.

There are no clear restrictions about what additional items — like potato chips — can be included in preschoolers’ lunch boxes.

“If a parent sends their child with a Coke and a Twinkie, the child care provider is going to need to provide a balanced lunch for the child,” Kozlowski said. Ultimately, the child care provider can’t take the Coke and Twinkie away from the child, but Kozlowski said she “would think the Pre-K provider would talk with the parent about that not being a healthy choice for their child.”

It is unclear whether the school was allowed to charge for the cafeteria lunches they gave to every preschooler in the class that day.

The state regulation reads:  ”Sites must provide breakfast and/or snacks and lunch meeting USDA requirements during the regular school day. The partial/full cost of meals may be charged when families do not qualify for free/reduced price meals. When children bring their own food for meals and snacks to the center, if the food does not meet the specified nutritional requirements, the center must provide additional food necessary to meet those requirements.”

Still, Kozlowski said, the parents shouldn’t have been charged. ”The school may have interpreted [the rule] to mean they felt like the lunch wasn’t meeting the nutritional requirements and so they wanted the child to have the school lunch and then charged the parent,” she said. “It sounds like maybe a technical assistance need for that school.”

So, it sounds like some underpaid cafeteria worker was poorly trained in implementing the regulations and that there isn’t some widespread practice of docking parents for providing inadequate lunches.

The wider question is whether the state education system ought to be in the position of inspecting the lunches preschoolers bring from home. My gut instinct is that, Hell no they shouldn’t. Where are we, Communist Roosha or something?

Certainly, it’s going way too far to have a daily inspection of each kid’s lunchbox. On the other hand, there is a lot of really bad parenting going out there. Maybe some parents can’t afford to send their kids to schools with decent lunches but are either somehow unaware of free lunch programs or too proud to sign up. Or maybe they’ve allowed their kids to eat nothing but Twinkies because it’s easier than dealing with cranky toddlers. It’s reasonable enough for teachers and other school officials to keep an eye out on what the kids are eating and take note if Johnny is eating nothing but junk food every day. And maybe call Johnny’s parents and inquire into the matter.

UPDATE: Mark Thompson does more digging and calls this a “non-troversy.” Citing a story from something called the John W. Pope Civitas Institute,  he summarizes:

For starters, the context in which all of this occurred was a public school pre-K program run by the state popularly known as “More at Four,” but now called the generic name “NC Pre-K.”  In order to have a child enrolled in this program, which has a limited number of slots, the parents must actively choose to enroll, with priority going to “at-risk” children, to wit: special needs children and (importantly) low-income children.

[…]

[T]he “state agent” in this story turns out to be nothing more than a researcher from a program that grades the performance of pre-schools and operates out of the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  It also does not appear that this institute has any actual authority other than to provide assessments, which the state then uses in making licensing decisions and in setting the fees it will pay the day care provider for subsidized care.

Notably, as the second-linked story above suggests, the mother’s main gripe here does not even appear to be with this “state agent,” but instead with the school’s teachers, who continue to give the girl milk and vegetables despite letters from the mother asking them not to.  Indeed, the notion that this “state agent” was going around inspecting every single lunch box brought to the school does not appear to have much basis, as the agent apparently ordered full school lunches for every single child in this program and was evaluating the school’s compliance with standards, not individual parents’ compliance.  Even if he was doing such an inspection, there’s a pretty obvious context-specific reason for it: this is an opt-in program for parents who largely can’t afford to provide fully balanced meals.

[…]

By and large, what this story boils down to is that a low-income child whose tuition is fully subsidized by the state under a program her mother opted into was offered some additional food to supplement the boxed lunch she brought from home.  This option was provided not because of some overarching, generally applicable law or regulation, but because the program in which her mother and school voluntarily participate requires such an option be available.

This bolsters my initial sense that something “fishy” was going on with regards to the controversy. In an opt-in program for at-risk kids, the rationale for state action increases and the sense of outrage over the presumption that parents wouldn’t be providing acceptable nutrition for their children decreases. Even so, I’m a bit uneasy about the notion of state-appointed “researchers” doing an inventory of every kid’s lunch.

School lunch image via Shutterstock

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Education, Government, Parenting, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ha! I saw this story and knew it was up the OTB alley.

    I may be the token diet-and-exercise guy in these comments, but I don’t find much defensible here. If parents send a lunch, they’ve taken responsibility. Period.

    (It’s especially shocking that the faulted lunch was a pretty good one.)

  2. Jsmith says:

    The family deserves their money back — and a weekend in a republic where the Constitution still applies, if one can be found.

  3. More directly related:

    Seventeen percent of children are obese, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one in three kids is obese or overweight. The rate of childhood obesity has tripled to the point that pediatricians say growth charts no longer apply to today’s kids.

    To accommodate larger kids, some schools have instructions for teachers to provide separate chairs and desks for students who cannot fit into the pupil chairs. And school furniture makers are increasing the size of chairs and desks to accommodate larger students.

    America has food issues. That said, lunch inspection is not the right direction. Instead, we need public education on what our bodies need, and how hard it is to recover from obesity once achieved.

  4. JKB says:

    So did they safe guard and return the bag lunch to the parent or did they do an unlawful taking, or as it is commonly known, stealing from the family?

  5. JKB says:

    This goes to demonstrate why we, apparently, need free birth control. It is the only way the People can preserve their inalienable rights. If you have a kid, you invite government control over almost all aspects of your life, government inspection of your home and child’s meals, as well as monetary assessments when you are deemed deficient.

    So, save your freedom, abort that baby.

  6. mantis says:

    So did they safe guard and return the bag lunch to the parent or did they do an unlawful taking, or as it is commonly known, stealing from the family?

    JKB and the rest of the wingnutosphere apparently aren’t familiar with the word “supplement.”

    If you are a shitty parent and send your kid to school with nothing but Twinkies and Coke, the cafeteria will offset your shitty parenting and provide your kid with some actual nutritious food. That doesn’t mean the school steals your kid’s junk food that you think is adequate, only that they will supplement it (look it up, wingnuts).

    Is that a terrible thing? No, it is not. Will it occasionally result in a child with a perfectly nutritious lunch getting additional food? Yes. Is it worth leaving neglected children with poor nutrition (and thus poorer school performance) to avoid hurting the delicate sensibilities of an occasional parent? I would say no.

    But then, Hitler Stalin school lunches evil apocalypse Muslim death panels, so I might be wrong.

  7. anjin-san says:

    A minimum wage cafeteria worker makes a borderline judgement call and its front page news on Fox. You really can’t make this stuff up.

  8. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    Well, until this story I certainly didn’t know that kid’s lunch bags were being inspected.

    Was that part of your childhood?

  9. deathcar2000 says:

    and today in the Cafeteria we’ll be serving

    Jihad Hitler Stalin school lunches evil apocalypse Muslim death panels Sharia chicken nugget death march Alinsky and assorted Radical Black Panthers toppings. . . .

    coke and twinkies are for the bourgeoisie,

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    If the Millennials were a stock I’d be short selling them on margin.

  11. Franklin says:

    Even when I was a libertarian, young and naive, I believed in exceptions for children. But even now, I find the inspection of a bagged lunch unnecessarily wasteful of limited resources. Here in Michigan we’re trying an experiment where we see if education can happen with almost no funding whatsoever, and I don’t really see how we have time for anybody to be doing this somewhat frivolous task.

  12. Franklin says:

    Oh, also, I bet I know a hell of a lot more about nutrition than almost anybody working in that cafeteria. Chicken nuggets? I mean, c’mon, the chicken itself is probably fine but there’s zero (or even negative) nutritional value in that breading. Synthetic rubbish.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    If the Millennials were a stock I’d be short selling them on margin.

    And if I got a nickel for every time you regurgitated the same tired, stale lines, I’d be a multimillionaire…

  14. rodney dill says:

    No soup for you!

  15. Loviatar says:

    Facts have a liberal bias.
    .

    A North Carolina Non-Troversy?

    By and large, what this story boils down to is that a low-income child whose tuition is fully subsidized by the state under a program her mother opted into was offered some additional food to supplement the boxed lunch she brought from home. This option was provided not because of some overarching, generally applicable law or regulation, but because the program in which her mother and school voluntarily participate requires such an option be available. The mother apparently objects to this option being provided to her daughter, not because of any health concerns or the like, but because she incorrectly believes that she will be charged additional money for her child being provided this option. Since she won’t in fact be charged for this and there is no evidence she was ever going to be charged for it, there is absolutely no harm actually being done to her or her child.

    .

    State Inspectors Searching Children’s Lunch Boxes: “This Isn’t China, Is It?”

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Loviatar:

    I await all of the above’s “My bad.”s But I won’t hold my breath.

  17. john personna says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Well, I did read the first-cited article to see what it claimed, and responded to that:

    The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs — including in-home day care centers — to meet USDA guidelines

    I’m with James that this updated version is better but still kind of odd. It would be much simpler to give free lunches to children with none, wouldn’t it? Qualifying students get free lunches, unqualified parents get billed.

  18. merl says:

    Sounds like an Onion article to me. Someone had to force a child to eat McNuggets? you guys need to buy a bullshit detector.

  19. Turner says:

    There was a time long ago when the school cafeterias served fresh, healthy meals, not frozen cardboard and sawdust that we see in the picture. I think the problems started when the Federal government got involved with the “free lunch” fiasco (“there’s no such thing as a free lunch”). The food is a disaster and costs too much. Then the schools started serving breakfast (“if a parent can’t fix a bowl of cereal, they have no business having kids”) and teachers had to start showing up at 7:00 am to supervise breakfast instead of planning instruction.
    Of course, we now have cities banning Happy Meals, as if they did not have anything else to do but police what we eat. Soon, you will be arrested for possession of donuts.
    I have a feeling that if the government eliminated the school “nutrition” program, the food would get a lot better and cost less.

  20. Racehorse says:

    Figures. This is occurring in a state that will soon change the name of its school system to the “State Department of Public TESTING”. The new motto will be “Testing isn’t everything. Testing is the only thing.”
    Bureauacats need to stop all of the testing, get back to teaching, and leave the lunch box to the parents to worry about.

  21. mantis says:

    There was a time long ago when the school cafeterias served fresh, healthy meals, not frozen cardboard and sawdust that we see in the picture.

    Food was a lot cheaper back then, too. Ah, weren’t things grand in the past?

    Then the schools started serving breakfast (“if a parent can’t fix a bowl of cereal, they have no business having kids”)

    We can’t prevent unfit parents from having kids, but we can try to make sure their kids at least aren’t going through life hungry. But Hitler advocated free lunches, or something, so eat it librul Nazis!

    Of course, we now have cities banning Happy Meals, as if they did not have anything else to do but police what we eat.

    One city banned toys in Happy Meals, not the food itself. It’s a stupid law, IMO, but it isn’t what you say it is.

    Soon, you will be arrested for possession of donuts.

    If by soon you mean never, yes.

    I have a feeling that if the government eliminated the school “nutrition” program, the food would get a lot better and cost less.

    Government works best when not guided by uninformed “feelings.”

  22. Franklin says:

    @Loviatar: If that’s all true (and I’ve obviously fooled before), then yes, my bad. I’m still a bit surprised that anybody has time to do these searches.

  23. KariQ says:

    Evidently, folks didn’t read the follow up article either, since you’re still complaining about “inspecting individual lunchboxes.” According to the article posted above:

    Indeed, the notion that this “state agent” was going around inspecting every single lunch box brought to the school does not appear to have much basis, as the agent apparently ordered full school lunches for every single child in this program and was evaluating the school’s compliance with standards,

    No one’s lunchbox is being inspected. A group of at risk kids are being given milk and vegetables. Oh the horror!

  24. @KariQ:

    On the other hand, how did it feel for some, to jump up and defend searching?

  25. Franklin says:

    @KariQ: Well, to be more precise, the kid was still apparently offered chicken nuggets in this case, not milk and veggies.

  26. llama says:

    Let our government cease collecting data with important public policy implications. It might upset some people!

  27. Nikki says:

    I saw the headline on memeorandum and knew it would prove to be a non-troversy simply by noting which blogs chose to link to it.

  28. I disagree that this is “non-troversy.” This kind of food fascism absolutely is not new and it’s worse than you think. My wife directed a private preschool at a Methodist church in the 1990s. Because it was a preschool, and not a mothers’ day out program, it had to be licensed by the state of Tennessee.

    The Faustian bargain was simply this: in exchange for being granted the preschool license, Cathy had to submit the school to total control by the State for everything except curriculum (presumably because it was a church preschool the State did not dictate that).

    And yes, inspectors did come to the preschool and peer into the kids’ lunch bags to make sure lunches from home met federal guidelines – at a private school that received not one cent of government money. And in the crib room inspectors counted the ratio of Caucasian dolls to black dolls to make sure that babies’ playthings were ethnically diverse (I kid you not). And there were other such inspections.

    The State awarded star ratings on how well a preschool conformed to what the State wanted. Three stars was the highest, and failure to conform not only meant a school lost stars, it could lose its license altogether, which is to say it could be put out of business.

    That we arrived at this point has almost nothing to do with whether Democrats or Republicans are in office. After all, it was GW Bush who promoted and signed NCLB, the most intrusive and controlling federal legislation of education ever.

    It has everything to do with den Beste’s law:

    After almost 230 years of this experiment, it is entirely apparent that, regardless of which party controls the Congress or the Executive, the federal government is a a ravenous beast that devours money and craps regulations. (Den Beste’s Law: “The job of bureaucrats is to regulate, and left to themselves, they will regulate everything they can.”)

    That’s where we have been for a long, long time.

  29. Mantis is a paid Truth Teamer, perhaps? says:

    @mantis:

    “If you are a shitty parent and send your kid to school with nothing but Twinkies and Coke, the cafeteria will offset your shitty parenting and provide your kid with some actual nutritious food. That doesn’t mean the school steals your kid’s junk food that you think is adequate, only that they will supplement it (look it up, wingnuts).”

    Isn’t it lovely how libs make their points?

    I saw no evidence that any parent sends a child to school with a Twinkie and a Coke, but the lib commenters have picked up the meme as if it were documented truth.

    And the insults — libs always have to get in some personal insults. “Shitty parents” and “wingnuts” aren’t word choices that make me eager to consider Mantis’ points.

  30. Jeff says:

    I am extremely unhappy with this article. Here I thought i would get a moment of addle-brained drivel, but I received a thoughtful, insightful article. How dare you?! You will never find success as a journalist, sir.
    teeheehee