GREENSBORO, N.C. — National attention has been drawn to a reported incident in which a North Carolina preschooler was given a cafeteria lunch because a state worker deemed her homemade lunch unhealthy.
The Carolina Journal first reported the incident on Tuesday in an article titled “Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria ‘Nuggets’.” The reported incident revolves around state regulation that requires all lunches in pre-Kindergarten programs to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. It doesn’t matter if the lunches are packed from home or purchased in the cafeteria.
The Journal initially reported that a state agent was inspecting lunchboxes in a West Hoke Elementary School ‘More at Four’ classroom. The report has since been edited and no longer reads that it was a state agent but a “person who was inspecting lunches.”
The Journal reported the inspector decided that a girl’s lunch — which consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, apple juice and potato chips — “did not meet USDA guidelines.”
The Journal reports the child was then provided with a full cafeteria tray, from which she ate three chicken nuggets. The Journal reported they spoke with the girl’s mother after her daughter returned home with her home-packed meal untouched. The mother has not been publicly identified.
The mother told the Journal she received a note from the school explaining that children 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,” the Journal reports.
Bruce Alexander, director of communications and governmental affairs with the USDA, said Wednesday the person inspecting lunches was a “North Carolina Education staff member conducting a review of the child care center.”
The review, which took place on Jan. 30, was part of the state’s ‘Star Rated’ licensing program, Alexander said. The program is designed to provide parents with a rating of child care centers across the state, including the nutritional content of the meals consumed by children.
“A teacher apparently was nervous during this state review and mishandled the situation,” Alexander said.
Alexander also said the mother was never charged for the meal.
“The school thought it had been resolved, apologized to the parent and never charged the parent for a school meal,” he said.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A USDA-APPROVED LUNCH FOR PRESCHOOLERS?
The state guidelines require that one serving of meat, one serving of grains, one serving of dairy, and two servings of fruits or vegetables are provided with each meal.
“Which means the state can come in at any time to check and see if we are in compliance with the state guidelines — for cleanliness, sanitation reasons, what the children are doing or playing socially, what they eat,” said Christy Eldridge, head of Brookhaven Day School — a state-licensed pre-K school in Greensboro.
If a teacher feels that a child’s home-packed meal does not meet the state’s requirements, the teacher is required to supplement the meal with whatever is missing to ensure the child is provided with a healthy lunch.
Nothing from a home-packed meal is ever taken away and teachers cannot force a child to eat whatever supplemental servings are provided.
Eldridge said parents of her schoolchildren know and understand the state regulation. However, she said they are often adding something to a child’s plate.
Eldridge feels the state is simply looking out for the health of schoolchildren and said she doesn’t mind having to add a fruit or vegetable to a child’s lunch if the state requires it. Some pre-K programs prefer to avoid the situation altogether by not allowing their students to bring a packed lunch, she said.
At Brookhaven, where the 4 to 5-year-old classrooms are made up of between 12 and 18 students, children who ate in the cafeteria on Wednesday were served a lunch that consisted of fish sticks, corn, peaches, potatoes, and a small carton of milk.