RALEIGH – When Carolina Journal reported Feb. 14 that a Hoke County girl had come to preschool with a turkey sandwich and came home after having eaten chicken nuggets instead, little did we suspect that the story would go viral, that new information would change some of the details – and that these two things would conspire to cause us a major headache.
As originally reported by CJ Associate Editor Sara Burrows, the story described a Jan. 30 incident at West Hoke Elementary School, which serves as a site for a prekindergarten program (previously known as More at Four, it is now called North Carolina Pre-K). After talking to the preschooler’s mother, the principal of the school, and a representative of the North Carolina Division of Child Development, Burrows wrote the following lede:
“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 rest of the story went on to recount the fact that the child had been given a cafeteria lunch, of which she only ate the chicken nuggets, and that the mother had received a note from the school informing her that her packed lunch had been deemed nutritionally incomplete and that she could end up paying $1.25 for the cafeteria food.
The story also quoted the Division of Child Development official as saying that the meal may not have been incomplete in the first place, and that the proper course of action would have been for the school to supplement the missing items, not provide a full meal from the cafeteria that a child would think she was supposed to eat rather than the food sent from home.
It was an interesting story about an important issue of government usurping parental prerogatives. At this point, there was no reason to question the accuracy of any of the facts. The school principal had identified a state inspector as the person who determined that the lunch was insufficient. The DCD official did not offer any alternative version of events.
However, in the editing process CJ made a couple of poor word choices that would later prove problematic. By writing that “a state employee told” the preschooler “the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious,” we created the implication that the state employee had personally intervened to prevent the child from eating her sandwich, and perhaps even that it was the state employee who gave the child chicken nuggets instead.
Secondly, the headline affixed to the story read: “Preschooler's Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria Nuggets: State agent inspects sack lunches, forces preschoolers to purchase cafeteria food instead.” The intended meaning was that the inspector had flagged the lunch – actually, more than one lunch, as mentioned in the article – as nutritionally deficient, the children had been offered cafeteria food, that the 4-year-old girl at least thought she was being required to eat it instead of what was brought from home, and a bill for the food was subsequently sent home.
But the subhead was poorly worded. It made it look like someone had personally intervened to force the child to eat the chicken nuggets instead of her sandwich. That’s not what Burrows had reported. In retrospect, a better choice of word would have been “pressured,” as that accurately reflects what the girl (and other children in the class, it seems) experienced. Their teacher brings them food from the cafeteria even though their parents sent lunches. What is a 4-year-old supposed to think? That the cafeteria food is just a suggestion?
Shortly after the original story was published on CJO, two things happened. First, the story rapidly got picked up by state and national news outlets, including radio shows and network news broadcasts. As a result, tens of thousands of readers immediately began clicking on the page. It crashed our server, bringing down our entire suite of websites as a consequence.
Second, sources who had originally failed to respond to our initial calls for information, or who had new information, began to offer us and other media outlets details about the incident that prompted us to update our story. The identity of the person who made the original determination that the lunch was deficient, for example, came under question. One source was now saying the person worked for the federal Department of Agriculture. Another said the person worked for the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, an organization that had previously acted as a contractor for the state in overseeing More at Four programs such as the one at West Hoke Elementary. For its part, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a carefully worded statement denying that any of its employees or contractors had ever gone through or questioned any child about food items brought from home. Yet another source, a federal official, said that only school personnel were involved in the incident, a claim school officials denied.
So we had two editorial problems to address. One was that the poorly worded headline did not reflect the original reporting, much less the new information. Unfortunately, other media outlets and talk shows were going beyond the facts of the story to imply that the inspector had actively prevented the girl from eating her sandwich or confiscated it. The headline certainly didn’t help matters here.
The second problem was that the identity of the person inspecting the lunches was in question. We needed to update the story to reflect the new information, some of which came from sources who had altered their initial version of events.
Unfortunately, because the server had crashed, we couldn’t immediately access the page to make the changes. And even if there had been a brief window in which we could have edited the page, we couldn’t be sure the server wouldn’t crash again. CJ staff deemed the best short-term solution would be to rewrite the subhead and the first two paragraphs of the story to remove the poor wording, with a note of explanation. We decided to keep the changes general, in case we had subsequent problems editing the page while the server problem was being addressed, and then publish a separate story reporting on the conflicting claims about who did what.
On the technical side, the solution was to create a “static” page for the original story – one that didn’t require dozens of hits to the database every time a reader sought to load the page, as can be the case for a “dynamic” page with lots of side items constantly updating.
Frankly, the whole process took longer that it should have. In the interim, readers, listeners, and viewers across North Carolina and the nation could only get the original story filtered by other media outlets, and sometimes embellished or miscast by them. Late Wednesday afternoon, the new text appeared on a static page. But we flubbed our instructions to our web contractor. The rewritten subhead didn’t appear on the static page until Thursday evening, even though it had been previously entered in the database. If the story had still been on a dynamic page, the edits would have manifested themselves much sooner.
Essentially, it was a perfect storm of poor wording in the initial story, new information coming to light, and a server crash that inhibited quick updates to the original page. We apologize for the problem. We should have been better prepared for the readership surge and made better editorial choices.
Since CJ was founded in 1991, we have had only rarely to issue corrections or updates to stories. No CJ story has ever had enough mistakes to merit retraction. This story need not be retracted, either. But it should have been updated more quickly to correct poor word choices and insert new information.
All that having been said, I am still pleased that the story ran. It has sparked a fascinating debate, not just in North Carolina but across the country, about the proper role of government in crafting and enforcing nutritional standards for schools, preschools, and day care providers. I recall having to comply with the same type of regulations when my boys were in a regulated day-care center, and thinking back then that these were precisely the kind of regulations that may look good on paper but prove to be intrusive, unwise, and counterproductive in practice. It is one thing to advise me on what my kids should eat. It is another for me to pack items that they will actually eat when not in my presence.
It turns out that the more compliance there is with the nutritional standards, the higher the preschool is rated, which has implications for its funding level, among other things. I'm OK with a rule that says a preschool that receives tax dollars to subsidize poor students must ensure that the kids eat lunch. But to set rigid standards — ignoring the likelihood that kids won't eat things they don't like without a parent looking over their shoulder — is intrusive and unwise, leading to the kind of perverse outcome we saw here: a kid who ate nuggets rather than a perfectly good packed lunch from home.
We plan to keep reporting on the issue in the coming days. One consequence of the Hoke County story going viral is that it has prompted other parents to come forward with similar stories from other school systems in North Carolina. We’ll follow up on those. We will also be publishing additional reporting on the Hoke County case – there’s still another version of how the incident occurred, believe it or not – and on the broader issue of what North Carolina’s current nutrition-compliance policies are for schools, preschools, and day cares, and whether alternative policies might yield outcomes more consistent with governmental restraint and common sense.
As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints about any Carolina Journal stories or columns, please contact us directly, and we’ll respond accordingly. Thanks for reading, sorry about our editorial and technical missteps here, and best wishes.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.