A story that's hard to swallow

Nutrition enforcement missing daily recommended allowance of common sense

You might have heard breathless media reports that ran something like this: A 4-year-old girl in Raeford, N.C., took a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, apple juice and potato chips to school for lunch Jan. 30. But out of the blue, a state government agent inspecting lunches that day said the girl’s food wasn’t up to government nutrition standards, and forced the girl instead to eat chicken nuggets dispensed by the cafeteria.

It’s outrageous! It’s government gone amok!

And it didn’t happen like that.

What happened, according to WRAL-TV, was this: “Confusion over a state assessment of a government-funded pre-kindergarten program caused the child to believe she had to go through the cafeteria line and get the chicken nuggets lunch provided by the school, said Bob Barnes, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Hoke County.”

Apparently under the assessment program, if a homemade lunch is found to be missing a food group required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the school should offer the missing nutrition to the pupil for free.

Barnes said the state agent should have suggested the child get a carton of milk. Instead, the confused little girl went through the full lunch line.

So, by the time the child’s grandmother heard the 4-year-old’s interpretation of these events, she was livid.

And why wouldn’t she be? Who wants some food police goon rifling through a kid’s Spider-Man lunchbox to make sure Johnny’s got enough vitamins and minerals?

It’s not supposed to happen like that, of course. But it appears that the little girl in North Carolina encountered an overzealous, possibly undertrained foodie version of Deputy Barney Fife.

Schools have a certain obligation to watch over children. We get that. Still, you have to admit there’s something Orwellian about a “state agent” strolling from table to table inspecting pupils’ lunches.

When kids come to school over and over with suspicious bruises? When they consistently arrive to class dressed in rags? When they keep bringing lunches consisting of a root beer and a handful of lard? Sure, then it can become the school’s business. We would encourage officials to help elevate that child’s well-being if obvious warning signs re-occur. And for goodness’ sake, involve the parents every step of the way.

But when a preschooler unpacks a fairly healthy lunch? Just let the kid eat.

Last month, for the first time in 15 years, the feds issued new school lunch guidelines – more whole grains and produce, and less sodium and fat. We have no problem with that.

Kids might, though.

We had the pleasure of dining not once but twice this past fall with bright pupils at a Columbia County elementary school. We can report that the school’s hard-working lunchroom staff dutifully delivered nutrition.

One of our lunchmates was a charming second-grade girl who ate a cafeteria corn dog – but only the breading, not the hot dog inside. One of her classmates also ate a corn dog – but only the hot dog, not the breading. Other kids picked at their food to varying degrees, and too many meals, reasonably balanced but barely touched, simply got tossed into the trash.

In school cafeterias, away from their parents’ watchful eyes, kids are going to eat what they want. That makes it the parents’ job to help their kids want something healthy.

And it wouldn’t hurt for North Carolina’s lunch inspectors to cultivate a less confusing, more kid-friendly tableside manner.

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