Editor’s note: See update below, including the response from USDA.
WASHINGTON — The national uproar over a 4-year-old’s recent encounter with a preschool lunch monitor at a Hoke County elementary school has prompted two members of the N.C. congressional delegation to fire off a letter expressing “strong concern” to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“This unfortunate and absolutely unnecessary event exemplifies the very definition of ‘government overreach’ and further perpetuates a growing reason of why the American people continue to hold less and less faith in our government,” writes U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, D-8th District, in the letter co-signed by Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-2nd District. Kissell represents the district in which the incident took place.
The incident, in which the child’s lunch was deemed by someone at the school as failing to meet federal nutrition guidelines, was reported in a Feb. 14 story by Carolina Journal associate editor Sara Burrows. It quickly garnered major coverage on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, cable news channels, online news sites, and blogs all over the country.
No state or school official has identified the person who intervened during the child’s lunch period to tell her she was eating a sub-standard lunch, but Bob Barnes, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Hoke County schools, told the Fayetteville Observer that it was an agent of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education.
Barnes said the DHHS representative examined six lunches in the class that day, Jan. 30, and found that one did not meet federal nutritional standards. The child’s mother and grandmother told CJ that the child was told she had to eat a cafeteria lunch, but Barnes told the Observer that this was a misunderstanding on the part of the 4-year-old.
“We are not the lunch bag police,” Barnes told the Observer. “We would never put a child in any type of embarrassing situation. But we are responsible to see that every child gets a nutritious meal.”
The letter Kissell and Ellmers sent to Vilsack is dated Wednesday, Feb. 15. [Read the entire letter here]
“The content of a school lunch provided to a child by their parents should be governed only by the child’s parents, not another government bureaucrat,” the letter continues. “This event is an embarrassment and distraction from the hard work done by teachers and staff throughout our schools and preschools in North Carolina, and throughout our nation.”
“With all of the work needed to be done to help fix our education system here in America, it is absolutely ridiculous that we are wasting both our time and resources with the inspection and disqualification of perfectly healthy school lunches — provided to a child by parents, at no cost to our state or federal government. This is completely unacceptable.”
Without mentioning the details of the 4-year-old’s home-packed lunch of a turkey sandwich, a banana, apple juice and some potato chips, Kissell nonetheless notes shock that the meal would run afoul of federal regulations. “While I do not know the parent involved, it is clear from news reports that the content of the lunch she provided her daughter would meet the very same standards and expectations for a healthy lunch that I, and many others, have known throughout time.”
“I have packed similar lunches for my two daughters throughout their childhood,” the letter continues. “While I support efforts to provide more nutritious and healthier fresh food options in our schools, at no point should a government official be allowed to deny a 4-year-old child access to a parent-packed lunch or imply to a child that their lunch is wrong or there is a problem with the food provided to them by their mother or father.”
Kissell and Ellmers “call for an immediate clarification of this ridiculously misguided provision and a refocus of the work done by those tasked with implementing it.”
“The health and education of our children is [sic] far too valuable to be caught up in yet another example of government overreach and unwarranted involvement in the lives of our proud American families,” the letter continues. “We hope that you will take this matter seriously.”
Update, Feb. 17: In a press release, USDA press secretary Courtney Rowe said that USDA sets nutritional standards for school lunches. “In exchange for meeting those standards,” Rowe wrote, “USDA provides reimbursement and other resources to schools so that children get the nutrition they need to learn, thrive and grow.”
The agency however, does not “regulate sack lunches or any other food children bring from home to eat at school. That is a responsibility for parents, not the federal government. The incident in North Carolina involved local education officials and a State-run nutrition program, and USDA had no involvement.”
The press statement is available here.