News: CJ Exclusives

Who Is the Mystery Food Monitor?

No agency has said it employed the person checking preschoolers' lunch bags

Story updated, with replies from DHHS, 5:20 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., and FPG, 9:20 p.m.

RALEIGH — Three days after a Carolina Journal report on the plight of a 4-year-old preschooler and her lunch made national headlines, the identity of the person who determined that the youngster’s homemade lunch was not nutritious remains unknown.

Of the several government agencies who have been named in the controversy — the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Division of Child Development and Early Education at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Hoke County schools, and the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — none will admit that it was responsible for employing or contracting with the person who was inspecting preschoolers’ lunches at West Hoke Elementary School in late January.

In the initial story published Feb. 14, CJ Associate Editor Sara Burrows reported that a preschooler at West Hoke was notified by someone at the school that the lunch she brought from home — a turkey sandwich with cheese on white whole wheat bread, a banana, a bag of chips, and a container of apple juice — did not meet USDA guidelines for nutritious meals.

According to the mother and grandmother of the young girl, the preschooler said she was provided a cafeteria tray with other items to replace her lunch. She returned home with the lunch she brought to school untouched. She also was given a note from the school stating that students 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. School officials have said the youngster simply needed to add milk from the cafeteria to her lunch. The called the incident a misunderstanding, and that the mother will not be billed.

But other information surrounding the story remains unclear, and the government officials involved have provided sketchy — and sometimes conflicting — details. For instance:

• DHHS says the person monitoring the lunches was not employed by the agency. In a statement (PDF), the agency said it is not department “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.”

• Hoke County assistant superintendent Bob Barnes told the Fayetteville Observer that the person conducting the inspection was a DHHS employee.

• USDA spokesman Bruce Alexander said the person monitoring the lunches was a “North Carolina education staff member” [sic] reviewing the facility.

• Another report said, “The government inspector was from the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised program at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program gives schools a grade based on standards that include USDA meal guidelines enforced by the N.C. Division of Early Childhood Development.”

Contacted by email, Kelly Maxwell, a spokeswoman for FPG, would not say if the inspector was affiliated with the institute. (See update below.) Her reply stated, “The FPG Child Development Institute is not responsible for overseeing/monitoring early childhood programs in NC. The Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) is responsible for licensing early childhood programs in NC, including NC Pre-K.” FPG handled some oversight and monitoring when prekindergarten programs were part of the state’s Department of Public Instruction. DHHS took over supervision of those programs in the summer of 2011.

A follow-up email asking if the inspector in Hoke County had any connection with FPG received no reply.

CJ contacted Renee McCoy and Jani Kozlowski of the public affairs office of DHHS by email, asking if the agency had determined who employed the inspector. McCoy also was left a voicemail message at her office.

UPDATE, 5:20 p.m. McCoy replied to the email as follows:

Hi Rick,

Your request for public records ha been received [sic], as soon as the full report from the Consultants visit is available we will make it available to you.

Some one from my staff will provide as many answers as possible to your questions below.

Thanks for your inviting this agency to comment.

UPDATE, 6:45 p.m. DHHS spokeswoman Lori Walston responded to two questions related to the pre-K program’s governance and regulations, but not to those asking about the person who was inspecting the lunches. Her reply follows.

Here are the answers to your questions I can provide today. We are continuing to work on your request. I will be back in touch tomorrow.

Thank you,
Lori Walston

• The NCPre-K Program Requirements you forwarded to Sara Burrows were dated August 2011. Were these regulations updated to coincide with the move of the programs from the Department of Public Instruction to DHHS? Or was there another reason they were updated at that time? The NC Pre-K Program Requirements were updated in August, 2011 to reflect changes related to the transfer of the program to DHHS, the program name change, and requirements necessary for compliance with 2011 Session Law changes and the July 2011 ruling by Judge Howard Manning.

• To what extent are these regulations mandated by federal law, or made a condition of federal funding? Are they connected in any way to the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 or any regulations following from it? These regulations are state regulations and are not related to the Hunger-Free Kids Act. The regulations were intended to align with program requirements set forth by the USDA, due to the fact that many programs in NC receive USDA funding and therefore must abide by those federal regulations.

UPDATE, 9:20 p.m. In an email time-stamped 9:18 p.m., FPG’s Kelly Maxwell said no one from FPG was involved. Her initial response to CJ was time-stamped 3:17 p.m.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.