The Nugget Fiasco: Did a Government Inspector Really Force a Kid to Trade In Her Home-Packed Lunch?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on February 16, 2012

Did a child really have to trade in a wholesome sandwich for these?

In the last  two days many of you sent me links to this news story, which claims that a preschooler in a North Carolina school was forced by a state inspector to give up her packed lunch of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice because the meal did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines; instead the child was forced to take the school lunch of chicken nuggets.

As you might expect, this episode got a lot of press coverage and also became predictable anti-government fodder for right-wing outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.   Indeed, Limbaugh garbled the facts by erroneously attributing the “inspection” to “federal agents,” and also didn’t miss the chance to rope Michelle Obama into the story:

Do you believe this? I do! The food Nazis — and, by the way, this is Michelle (My Belle)’s program: No Child’s Behind Left Alone. . . .  I’ll tell you what, this is all coming from Michelle Obama.

Something didn’t smell right to me so I dug into the story a little more.   I was able to find out that pre-schools and daycare centers operated within North Carolina are indeed required to ensure that meals meet federal nutrition guidelines.  But when a meal from home does not meet these requirements, the school or day care center is supposed to supplement the meal, not replace it:

If children bring food from home for their meals or snacks, or if food is catered, you are responsible for making sure it is nutritional and meets the Meal Patterns for Children in Child Care. If it does not, you must have additional food available to supplement the meals and snacks brought from home. You should share nutritional information and meal ideas with parents to ensure they provide a well-balanced meal for their children.

And apparently this is may be exactly what happened at the pre-school in question.  Michele Hays, blogger at Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails found an informative link about the story which she kindly shared on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page.  In it, blogger Mark Thompson does a remarkable job of digging into the facts and keeping them updated as developments unfold in North Carolina.  He most recently posted a statement released by the agency in question, which claims to have

determined that no employee of DHHS, nor the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) or its contractors, instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items. Furthermore, it is not DHHS’ policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home. The facts we have gathered confirm that no DHHS employee or contractor did this.

Thompson also cites a local television outlet which reports that

the child was simply instructed (it is unclear by whom, and it is unclear whether the child was first asked whether she wanted milk) to go through the lunch line to get some milk, and that the superintendent thinks “that the child became confused about what she had to do. I think the child, instead of going over and picking up the milk, I think the child, for whatever reason, thought she had to go through the line and get a school meal which, that’s not our policy.”

Thompson goes on to note that

This version of events seems vastly more likely.  In effect, it means that someone at the school, whether a teacher, cafeteria worker, or a state program advisor (it’s still unclear which, though the first two seem much more likely if you’ve ever seen lunch time at a day care center) observed that the child lacked milk and suggested she go through the line to get some if she wanted it.  The child then mistakenly believed that going through the line meant she had to get an entirely new lunch.

Assuming all of the above is true — that the child was instructed to take a milk to round out her meal — I suspect that many parent would still be upset at the idea of a home-packed lunch being inspected by anyone for its nutritional adequacy.

On the other hand, Thompson pointed out in his original post on this story that the pre-school program at issue here was primarily for at-risk students, students whose parents are arguably less likely than most (due to lack of economic resources or nutrition education) to pack a healthful meal for their children.

So, now that we have more facts, what do you think about all this?

 

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Tang February 16, 2012 at 11:42 am

I knew it sounded fishy from the get-go (same with the story about the teen who supposedly has only eaten McDonald’s since the age of 2 ). Thanks for digging.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Susan – what ABOUT that McD girl? Was that a hoax in the end? It sounded like it but I just didn’t have the energy to dig into it.

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Michele Hays @QuipsTravails February 16, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I’ve been wondering that, myself. I did do a lot of digging, there is, apparently, a mother and daughter of that name living in that part of England, but other than that, I didn’t see anything else posted about it, other than nearly verbatim repeats of the original tabloid article and lots of finger-wagging for well over a week.

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Bri February 16, 2012 at 11:48 am

What do I think about all this?
1) I’m so glad you did some fact-finding. It’s been bugging me since yesterday that this story seemed far too outrageous to be entirely factual. Good to have a bit more information. Yay, Bettina!
2) The fact that the child was instructed to go get milk still bothers me. What if she’s lactose intolerant or has a dairy allergy? (OK, in this case, there was cheese on the child’s sandwich, but still…) What if she needs a casein-free diet? A four-year-old cannot advocate for herself and I see no evidence in this story that anyone thoroughly checked her medical records. A lunch that lacks milk is NOT a problem and should not be “rectified” by anyone.
3) The entire mandate by the state bothers me, in fact, because while I support the idea of shoring up the nutrition of low-income children (who as you point out are the likely beneficiaries of the policy), I DON’T support the idea of intervening in what parents choose to feed their children. As much as it pains me to see kids at my boys’ school scarfing down Cheetos and Yoo Hoo for breakfast, I don’t want anybody to tell their parents that they CAN’T send those things, or to make a big deal about “supplementing” or anything else. Perhaps the more positive aspects of the regulation, such as encouraging families to provide better nutrition and providing them with the resources to make good decisions, could be enacted without the necessary side component of rating a child’s home packed lunch? I mean, good grief — the other day I packed my kids a Valentine’s lunch of mainly fruits and vegetables, with no grain product. Would a preschool in North Carolina have “supplemented” those lunches with a white-flour roll and some milk, neither of which I wanted my kids to have for lunch that day?

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 16, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Bri –

First, I can’t take credit for the reporting here – blogger Mark Thompson really dug into this with gusto.

And I think you and I are pretty much in agreement. I, too, feel governmental oversight into what a parent packs in a child’s lunch is just way too intrusive. That really is “the Nanny State run amok,” as Sarah Palin would put it.

BUT, and this is a huge “but” you might disagree with — if you voluntarily take advantage of state subsidized services (and according to Thompson, kids in this particular program are 100% subsidized by the state) then, in my opinion, you have implicitly consented to the care and oversight of the state Nanny. And if Nanny wants to tell you to drink dairy with your lunch (even though she might be improperly influenced by the dairy lobby) or if Nanny says you need X many servings of fruit or whatever, I think you are in no position to object.

That’s why, when Michelle Malkin decried nutritional improvements to school food in LAUSD by saying that “The road to gastric hell is paved with first lady Michelle Obama’s nanny-state intentions,” I responded this way:

why is it that when someone advocates for improving the food served, they get mocked by right wingers as having “nanny-state intentions”? I have some bad news for you, folks: Nanny has been cooking away in the federal kitchen since the 1940s, and whether she’s dishing up Reagen-era cheeseburgers or Obama-era tofu, it’s all one big governmental handout.

(BTW, is there anything worse than the blogger who quotes herself?) But my point is, the school lunch program rests on subsidies, free commodity food, and governmental reimbursement. It’s a Nanny-run operation. So if you want your child to take advantage of that meal (which, even if you pay full price for it, doesn’t reflect its true cost), you are in essence agreeing to the USDA standards for that meal.

Does this make sense?

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Lenee February 16, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Yes. Well said, Bettina. And if one chooses to have their child participate in a subsidized program and the child has food restrictions because of an intolerance or allergy, it’s the parent’s responsibility to get it documented, filed, and known by all who work with the child, find out how the school will be managing that child’s mealtime, and to stay involved to make sure those restrictions are being enforced at every meal, and by everyone responsible for those mealtimes.

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Tari February 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm

I think it makes sense if you’re talking about everyone eating the school’s lunch. But this kind of intrusion is different than what Malkin complained about: here the mom was essentially “opting out” of the school lunch standard and the Nanny said she wasn’t allowed to do so. If I send the boys to buy lunch at school, I’m fine with the school forcing them to take the main course, 2 sides and a milk. If I wasn’t fine with that I wouldn’t let them buy lunch. But if I send Chris with his vegetable-less lunch box (because he won’t eat the veggies I pack), I don’t think it’s appropriate for the school to drag a bowl of carrots over and place it in front of him.

All that being said, I’m not surprised the news media did what it does best with stories like this: blow them out of proportion and get 1/2 the facts wrong. Seriously, they’re getting to be worse than weathermen during hurricane season. :)

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Lenee February 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Agreed, Tari. When my kids were in school I would have been LIVID if anyone tried to supplement the lunch I sent. Especially since I worked so hard to pack a healthy meal that I knew they would eat. They were involved every week in the decisions and it’s one of the ways I taught them how to eat healthfully. If anyone tried to add to their lunch, implying that it wasn’t healthy or complete, what would that have done to my message and teachings? They don’t know what my child had for breakfast, what I have planned for an after-school snack, and what we’re having for dinner. My daughter loved to eat frozen, mixed veggie right out of the freezer for a snack (at 18 she still does!), so I wasn’t too concerned if I didn’t pack a veggie that day. I knew she’d make up for it at snack and dinner.

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Bri February 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm

I agree with your premise, Bettina, but not the result. In other words, I vehemently agree, and always have, that if somebody is eating the food provided by a government program, they are subject to the rules of that government. End of story, and that’s rightly as it should be, because the government’s dollars are the ones that are providing the food.
BUT. If somebody takes advantage of a public program (like the Pre-K program offered at this public school), yet opts OUT of receiving the government-funded lunch and instead chooses to provide food for his/her child, then it’s the parent’s dollars that went to the food — and the parent’s prerogative to decide what that food should be.
It’s precisely BECAUSE of things like food allergies, autism, sensory perception problems, etc. that parents should be allowed to be the judges of what is appropriate to feed to their children. If they choose the school’s food, fine. But if they choose to send a lunch that works for their child’s food needs, it does not matter whether or not they’ve filed the appropriate paperwork with the school nurse to say that their kid has special dietary needs; the lunch they send should be protected.
Look at it another way: Many of us got angry when a child who was peanut-allergic died as a result of eating unsafe food at a class party. Her parents had done everything “right” in terms of notifying the school, they’d asked the right questions, they’d even been told that the food was “safe” for her. She ate it and she died. And that was a public school. Should her parents not have availed themselves of a public education for their daughter? How would we respond if a preschooler with a similar allergy, well-documented, etc., were told that her carefully packed, allergy-safe lunch needed “supplementation” and that child died as a result of eating the food the school provided, simply because we threw up our hands and said “well, you chose a public program…”
It’s not a question of agreeing with the USDA standards for school lunch. It’s a question of why the state of North Carolina feels that those USDA standards must apply to HOME lunches.

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Michele Hays @QuipsTravails February 16, 2012 at 7:42 pm

I have to agree with Bri, here – at least, in principle.

It would appear that this particular incident was a comedy of errors (of the sort that terrify food-allergy parents; thank goodness not the case here) where the parent was wildly misinformed and the school staff confused. If her objection was that she’d have to pay for the lunch and couldn’t afford it, and the lunch was free, I can see where the school might decide to offer a lunch – as they knew she would not be charged.

However, as Bri points out, opting out of the program for whatever reason, even being misinformed, is a parent’s right. I’m also concerned that having lunches inspected for “nutritional quality” sets children up for negative social consequences. I don’t live in North Carolina, though – so the voters in that state are going to have to weigh in with their representatives.

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Jinni February 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Either way, I find this all unacceptable. Honestly, people – this is just a bit crazy. I don’t feed my kid non-organic food, processed grains, etc., for a REASON. The idea that a school is going to ‘help’ by supplementing with what is honestly craptastic food is disturbing. Americans don’t eat particularly well for a host of reasons (bad supermarkets, subsidizing of processed food products, bad information), but the schools don’t do any better despite their claims. A year of Mrs Q. sorted that out quite nicely.

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Milehimama February 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I still think it’s appalling, and an intrusion into parental rights. Unless the parents sign a waiver at the beginning of the year, consenting to lunch searches and the supplementation, or signed up for a nutritional help program. However, if they are for “at risk”, it’s simple to sign up for the free lunch program. The fact that Mom is packing the lunch would make it seem that she is trying to avoid school lunch, for whatever reason.

I have a child on a special diet that I could not get written into his IEP, so we manage it ourselves with home packed lunches. Thank goodness the little girl wasn’t allergic to soy or something!

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EdT. February 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I figured that this whole dust-up would end up being Much Ado About Not A Whole Lot, once the facts came out. In fact, I noticed how the story tended to change as it made the rounds from one talking head to another to another… The story as you outlined it? Sounds perfectly reasonable. Also, sounds really upsetting. If it were MY kid, I would have had words – several, loud, ugly words – with the person in charge at that day care center (in fact, I have had loud, ugly words with folks who were responsible for my child before – though the cause was slightly different.)

To me, it isn’t about the “nanny state” aspect – well, it is, sort of. The idea of someone telling my child they had to “supplement” the food I sent with them to school is simply offensive to me. When I prepared lunch for my son, I got to be the Decider-in-Chief. If I told him to buy lunch at school, then I would be more accepting of their oversight (though, if he had food allergies, I would make sure the school had those documented, and woe be unto them and their descendants if they made him eat something he was allergic to!)

But, I certainly understand that this incident was not the Obama Administration’s (or the First Lady’s) fault, as the decision wasn’t made at the Federal level. Of course, it is but another front in the ongoing Culture Wars…

*sigh*

~EdT.

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Lenee February 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Well said, EdT.

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Karen Frenchy February 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I like it ;)

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Veggievangelist February 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm

“….students whose parents are arguably less likely than most (due to lack of economic resources or nutrition education) to pack a healthful meal for their children.”

While the above is true, I will say that some parents, regardless of socio-economic level, are guilty of packing crappy home lunches for their children. I ate lunch at school with my son last week for his birthday. One of his classmates had a home packed meal that made my eyes practically pop out of my head over the sugar content. Squeezy yogurt, fruit leather, marshmallows with chocolate covered almonds, and to top it off, a Capri Sun. This, for a child who regularly complains of being tired when I’m in the classroom working with them at their centers.

It’s an education issue across the spectrum.

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Alicia February 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Thanks for doing the research. I knew there was likely more to the story. I still disagree strongly with a school determining that what a parent has sent is not sufficient. Schools need to stick to educating children, not feeding them. As I try to teach my children good nutrition, I try to get them to think in terms of a full day with regard to getting their nutrients in, or even a full week as it related to how many treats to allow themselves. The school has no idea what that child eats the rest of the day, not that it should even be their responsibility to evaluate a child’s nutrition. The school’s idea of what is nutritious is not up to my standards.

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KarlG February 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm

It doesn’t matter who’s policy it is, the bottom line is that the parent of this child chose not to have their child eat what the school provides for lunch. That decision needs to be respected. Especially with the school not knowing what that child had for breakfast or will be having for dinner. There is absolutely no reason for them to instruct that child to get anything from their menu regardless of what is in the child’s lunch. Even if a child is part of a program for at-risk students it doesn’t give anyone the right to monitor and dictate what they eat. The schools responsibility is to provide healthy choices and educate the students and their parents on why they should make those choices.

I think that Mrs. Obama’s push for healthy meals for children is great but very difficult to implement. There are way to many “official” opinions on what is considered a healthy diet. Who can you believe? Everybody tells you that they have the best idea because they have research to prove it but regardless of the facts, the ones with the most money will lobby for their cause and the highest bidder always wins. Left or Right, we need to demand that we be the ones to make the choices not the government officials that are being paid off to push the lobbyist agenda. So do you trust the government or do make your own decision? Better yet, will those who choose a healthy diet be able to afford it? I for one will continue to be the sole “Decider-in-Chief” (thx EdT) of what my boys eat.

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Kara February 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm

My daughter has dietary restrictions. We don’t have anyone policing lunches here but if they did, I have already made everyone at school aware of her issues. If she was ever told to take some other type of food other than what I gave her, she would say no. She has also been instructed that if there is EVER a situation that happens at school that she does not like or feel comfortable with..all she has to say is “You need to call my mom”.

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dana February 17, 2012 at 3:43 am

Now, the parents of the kid are claiming that the school is lying to try to cover its behind.

http://www.nccivitas.org/2012/father-of-chicken-nuggets-pre-schooler-says-schools-version-of-events-not-accurate/

But, what really caught my attention in that article was the claim that “every program has to report how much food is served to children and the school is reimbursed $1.50 for every meal even if the meal is thrown away. Campbell says he’s known programs to give a child a 50-cent apple, for example, and be reimbursed at the full price of a lunch. ”

That claim is false, right? I thought for a school to get reimbursed, you’d have to give the child milk, protein, vegetable, etc.. and not just one apple.

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Michele Hays @QuipsTravails February 17, 2012 at 9:05 am

I don’t think so, Dana – I think the child is required, under offer-vs-serve, to take 3 of the 5 offerings, but so far as I know there is exactly zero requirement that they eat what they take.

If you think about it, such a requirement would be impossible to police on multiple levels: first of all, who’s going to force-feed the kids and why would you? Second, the school still has to pay for the discarded lunch items, without reimbursement that would mean bankrupcy, right? Third, do we set up federal garbage inspectors to separate and price all the garbage?

I don’t like waste, but there is a degree to which it is inevitable.

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dana February 18, 2012 at 1:09 am

I understood the part about waste, how schools will get reimbursed even if the child does not end up eating what they take.

But, that was the first time I’ve heard the claim that schools could get reimbursed $1.50 even if all they gave a child was a single apple. If that was the case, that would seem to invite a lot of abuse for schools to take advantage of that loophole.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 17, 2012 at 11:43 am

Hey all –

I hate when this happens – a super controversial topic that generates tons of discussion while my own life is going nuts. I promise to jump back in this weekend and address many of these thought-provoking comments.

In the meantime, carry on! :-)

Bettina

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dana February 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Here’s another update to the story:

http://www.theblaze.com/stories/exclusive-2nd-n-c-mother-says-daughters-school-lunch-replaced-for-not-being-healthy-enough/

I’m not a fan of Glen Beck, but it seems properly reported as it found another parent who made similar accusations.

So, here’s what I think happened:

The state sends these inspectors to grade these pre-schools on a comprehensive level, including nutriiton and whether or not students’ lunches met USDA standards.

In an earlier inspection, one inspector randomly checked lunches and noticed that not every home-made lunch met USDA standards so this lowered the school’s scores and how much money it would receive from the state.

So, the next time an inspector comes to check the school, the teachers tried to raise the scores by supplementing home-made lunches with milk or anything else needed to meet USDA requirments.

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Wilma February 22, 2012 at 7:17 am

I read the report on BLAZE and was curious to read what the policy actually said. In the article, someone from the DHHS said “It is not DHHS’ policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home. The facts we have gathered confirm that no DHHS employee or contractor did this,”…

Being curious of what the policy actually said, I went to the NC Division of Child Development and Early Education website and found the policy on Nutrition, Chapter 9 of the handbook and there IS a rule regarding supplementing food from home:
“CHILD CARE RULE .0901
Food From Home
When children bring their own food for meals or snacks to the center, if the food does not meet the nutritional requirements outlined in the Meal Patterns for Children in Child Care, the center must provide additional food necessary to meet those requirements.”

Although I cannot find any language about inspectors enforcing this rule, the fact is there is a rule that meals must be supplemented if they do not meet standards.

As a child nutrition professional, I think it is ridiculous to monitor and police meals from home. I can only imagine how much more food would get thrown away if we had to supplement meals like the NC policy states!

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Gina February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm

When my inlaws (who are big Glen Beck fans) shared this story with me this weekend, I had a feeling something was suspicious. I’ve seen kids bring lunches to school that look about 1000% worse than this! Knowing how easily my five year old could get confused, I can see this misunderstanding happening.

The government has to walk a fine line on this topic. While it is absolutely the responsibility of parents to ensure they’re sending their kids to school with a healthy, balanced lunch at what point does government call a lunch child endangerment? While this may be predominately a low-income issue, trust me in that there are plenty of upper-class families sending junk repeatedly to school. Not only does poor choices impact the child’s health, but the learning environment for that entire class.

Just ask a teacher. They’ll tell you what they see every day after lunch.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 22, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hey all – so sorry for taking so long to head back here to comment.

Over on the Huff Po, where this post also appeared, I was just called by one commenter “a lefty and apologist for large overweenin­g government power over the unwashed plebes. ” Yikes!

Let me clarify my thoughts. On the one hand, parents in these pre-K programs knowingly signed up for a program where the regulations allow the supplementation of a lunch that’s deemed inadequate. They are hard pressed to complain now, provided this rule was made clear to them from the start.

But speaking personally, as a parent who has packed healthy two lunches a day for the last 8 or so years and who is not a fan of our current school food, I certainly would NOT be happy to have a governmental authority tampering with my child’s lunch.

My feeling is that there ought to be an opt-out provision: parents are told up front that their packed lunches will be held up to the USDA requirements, that supplementation is possible, and would they like to opt out? Parents who care deeply (because they’re health conscious, because the child has allergies, because they are anti-dairy, for religious reasons, whatever) will likely opt out, whereas the negligent parent who packs chips and soda is likely not on-the-ball enough to care one way or another. And if the chips-and-soda parent does opt out, I pity the undernourished child but, in the end, don’t think the government should step in.

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Bri February 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

I think that would be nice in an ideal world, but I wonder — if there’s an opt-out, then why have the policy in the first place? I suspect lawmakers who enacted it in the first place would say that an opt-out would probably be relatively popular with parents, and would take all the “teeth” out of the bill. I think it’s a simple case of a good intention (to help children get better nutrition) being morphed into an incredibly bad and overreaching piece of legislation, and it really just ought to be removed from the legal language.

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EdT. February 22, 2012 at 10:29 am

Bettina – I agree that there ought to be an opt-out policy. But, let’s keep this simple: if the parent sends a lunch to school with his/her kid, then s/he has OPTED OUT of the school-provided lunch, and that kid’s lunch is NOT SUBJECT to school oversight. If, OTOH, the parent has the kid participate in the school-provided lunch, then an OPT-IN has occurred, and the school/state (nanny or otherwise) gets to make the call (within reasons, allowing for food allergies etc.) as to what the kid is served.

~EdT.

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