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Did a State Inspector Really Make a Child Trade Her Home-Packed Lunch for Nuggets?

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In the last two days many Lunch Tray readers have 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:

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:

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 parents 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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