RALEIGH — State lawmakers questioned a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services official at a hearing Tuesday to determine why a Hoke County preschooler’s homemade turkey sandwich was replaced with chicken nuggets.
Members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services wanted to know if a teacher at West Hoke Elementary School was following state law when she offered a 4-year-old girl a cafeteria tray containing chicken nuggets, a sweet potato, bread, and milk as an alternative to her homemade turkey and cheese sandwich, potato chips, banana, and apple juice.
Deborah Cassidy, director of the DHHS Division of Child Development and Early Education, also was asked whether the cafeteria lunch provided to the 4-year-old was more nutritious then her homemade lunch and if the teacher (who has resigned from the school) should have faced any disciplinary action.
Cassidy told the committee that officials from the school and the school district have refused to discuss the matter with her.
The incident drew headlines nationally, and lawmakers wanted to see what steps should be taken to make sure the event was not repeated.
Cassidy testified that although the teacher did not violate the state agency’s policy, her division would have recommended the teacher go about implementing it in a more tactful way.
“What actions has the state taken to ensure we don’t have situations where a perfectly good turkey sandwich is being replaced with a bunch of fried chicken nuggets, which doesn’t make sense to the public or to any of us?” Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, asked Cassidy.
Cassidy answered that DCDEE consultants — like the one who visited West Hoke Elementary Jan. 26 — were working to “further educate child care facilities about how to handle this type of situation.”
The agency’s regulation requires all homemade lunches brought in by preschoolers to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines. They must include one serving of meat or a meat alternative, one serving of grain, two servings of fruit or vegetables, and one serving of fluid milk.
When a student has not brought something from one or more of these categories, the school or child care facility must supplement the meal with the missing items. While the child care provider can offer more than the missing items without violating policy, Cassidy said it’s not advisable to make the child feel like his or her homemade lunch is being replaced.
“We never would want to put the child in a situation where they’re choosing between this lunch and that lunch,” she said. “We really need to be supplementing the item or few items and making it as easy for the child as possible.”
“If a child is ever made to feel less than good about their family and the nutritious standards in their household, that would be inappropriate,” she added.
Cassidy said it is her understanding that the West Hoke Elementary preschooler’s lunch was not taken from her Jan. 30, but when the cafeteria tray was put in front of her, the child had so many “items available to her, she chose to eat something from the school menu rather anything from home.”
Had state officials been present that day, Cassidy said they simply would have recommended that the teacher politely and discreetly offer the child some milk.
“Are chicken nuggets deemed to be more nutritious than sliced turkey?” asked Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne.
“That’s beyond my expertise,” said Cassidy. “I’d be shooting in the dark on that one,” she added. “I don’t know.”
Later in the hearing, Cassidy explained to the committee that it was her agency’s “responsibility to educate parents” about making healthy, nutritious choices for their children.
Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, asked why the teacher, Margaret Maynor, had been suspended if she hadn’t violated state policy. Cassidy said she didn’t know.
“There certainly wouldn’t be anything from our perspective, from our rules, from our guidelines, our policies that would have resulted in the teacher being suspended,” she said. “My understanding was that she was suspended and then resigned.”
Cassidy said she’s been unable to reach the school’s principal or district superintendent to get any more details on the chicken nugget incident or the teacher’s resignation.
“The principal wouldn’t call back the division that oversees the program?” asked Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly. “What recourse do you have if you’re the head of this program and one of the local providers refuses to call you back?”
“We could conduct an unannounced visit, although I may have just announced it,” Cassidy said.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.