A North Carolina Non-Troversy?
by Mark Thompson on February 15, 2012
[UPDATED 2/16; see end of post for update]
Making the rounds the last day or two has been this story from the “Carolina Journal,” the monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation, which bears the headline: “Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria ‘Nuggets’; State agent inspects sack lunches, forces preschoolers to purchase cafeteria food instead.” (The story was eventually supplemented by significantly better reporting from another outlet here, which still fails to make the case being pushed by the narrative).
The headline sounds horrible, and the body of the story only makes it seems worse, conjuring images of government agents rifling through four year old children’s lunches to enforce USDA standards on healthy lunches, prohibiting children from eating food deemed insufficiently healthy (including turkey sandwiches!), and forcing them to instead eat government provided and mandated food (to wit: oh-so-healthy chicken nuggets). The original story also claims that the relevant regulations here apply to all pre-K programs, including home daycare programs, with the obvious implication that “this could happen to you!” This hits all sorts of libertarian buttons: invasion of privacy by the government, nanny statism of the highest order, government incompetence, not to mention forced-feeding of children. It even has the initial appearance of a well-sourced story, with quotes from the parent, the head of the state agency, and the school principal, not to mention the tie-in to Michelle Obama’s healthy school lunch platform.
Not surprisingly, this story has been picked up in large swathes of the libertarian and conservative blogospheres, including by Jacob Sullum, who is himself usually a pretty decent journalist, and entitled his post on the subject “North Carolina Food Inspector Rejects Little Girl’s Home-Packed Lunch in Favor of Chicken Nuggets.” The story even reached the pinnacle of attention within the right-of-center ideological media with a Rush Limbaugh segment (in which the “state agent” morphed into a “federal agent” charged with inspecting all lunch boxes). Predictably, the most outraged headline came from one of the folks at LewRockwell.com, “The Lunch Nazis are coming! No, They’re Here!”
One problem: the story is a load of bunk at worst, a non-story at best, standing for little more than the proposition that low-income children in NC’s low-income pre-K program whose parents don’t send them to school with enough healthy food will be provided with additional food to supplement what their parents send them to school with.
For starters, the context in which all of this occurred was a public school pre-K program run by the state popularly known as “More at Four,” but now called the generic name “NC Pre-K.” In order to have a child enrolled in this program, which has a limited number of slots, the parents must actively choose to enroll, with priority going to “at-risk” children, to wit: special needs children and (importantly) low-income children. Indeed, to even be eligible for the program, the child must either fit in one of those two categories or have a parent on (or about to be called on) active military duty. Enrollment as an “at-risk” child means that the child’s enrollment is fully subsidized by the state, regardless of whether the day care is private or public.
These facts are critical because the “state agent” in this story turns out to be nothing more than a researcher from a program that grades the performance of pre-schools and operates out of the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It also does not appear that this institute has any actual authority other than to provide assessments, which the state then uses in making licensing decisions and in setting the fees it will pay the day care provider for subsidized care.
Notably, as the second-linked story above suggests, the mother’s main gripe here does not even appear to be with this “state agent,” but instead with the school’s teachers, who continue to give the girl milk and vegetables despite letters from the mother asking them not to. Indeed, the notion that this “state agent” was going around inspecting every single lunch box brought to the school does not appear to have much basis, as the agent apparently ordered full school lunches for every single child in this program and (see update) was evaluating the school’s compliance with standards, not individual parents’ compliance. Even if he was doing such an inspection, there’s a pretty obvious context-specific reason for it: this is an opt-in program for parents who largely can’t afford to provide fully balanced meals.
Her other major gripe appears to be that she is worried about being charged for the additional food being placed in front of her daughter based on a letter from the school purportedly saying that kids who did not bring a healthy lunch would be offered supplements and that parents “may” be charged for the supplemented portions. However, as the second-linked story makes clear, no such charges have been issued nor apparently was there any actual chance that such charges would be issued.
The original story’s claim that the relevant regulation applies to all pre-schools is also false – to the contrary, it applies only to pre-schools choosing to participate in (and eligible for) the subsidized program.
The original story further obscures that in no circumstance was this child – or any child, for that matter – being forced to eat the school-provided lunch, nor was this child -or any other child – deprived of her boxed lunch. Instead, as the second linked story acknowledges, the child was just provided with additional food and given the option to consume that in addition to her boxed lunch. In other words, the claim that the school “replaced” this girl’s turkey sandwich, banana, apple, potato chips, and juice with chicken nuggets is totally bogus.
By and large, what this story boils down to is that a low-income child whose tuition is fully subsidized by the state under a program her mother opted into was offered some additional food to supplement the boxed lunch she brought from home. This option was provided not because of some overarching, generally applicable law or regulation, but because the program in which her mother and school voluntarily participate requires such an option be available. The mother apparently objects to this option being provided to her daughter, not because of any health concerns or the like, but because she incorrectly believes that she will be charged additional money for her child being provided this option. Since she won’t in fact be charged for this and there is no evidence she was ever going to be charged for it, there is absolutely no harm actually being done to her or her child.
Since this is also an opt-in program, there is no chance of this becoming some sort of generally applicable concern even to the extent there is some sort of nanny state concern here. If the mother has some sort of ethical problem with her child being provided with the option of drinking milk or eating vegetables at school, then she is surely free to send her child to an unsubsidized day care program.
At most, the only actual concern here, hinted at by the second-linked article, is the expense to the taxpayer of providing the extra food free of charge. Then again, since we are definitionally dealing with children whose parents will often lack the resources to provide a consistently balanced lunch, and since the whole point of the program is to provide those children with a pre-K experience that their parents’ income would otherwise prevent, this would not seem to be a tremendously important concern.
[UPDATE: The North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education has released a statement confirming much of what I wrote above, but also adding some additional clarification. According to the statement, the division has:
“determined that no employee of DHHS, nor the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) or its contractors, instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items. Furthermore, it is not DHHS’ 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.”
Additionally, citing the above-linked statement, a local TV news outlet which had jumped on the bandwagon claims that “the agency says it gave the little girl milk to offset a missing dairy item.” However, this claim does not appear to be in the cited statement.
The TV station’s update further quotes the school district’s superintendent as saying that the child was simply instructed (it is unclear by whom, and it is unclear whether the child was first asked whether she wanted milk) to go through the lunch line to get some milk, and that the superintendent thinks “that the child became confused about what she had to do. I think the child, instead of going over and picking up the milk, I think the child, for whatever reason, thought she had to go through the line and get a school meal which, that’s not our policy.”
This version of events seems vastly more likely. In effect, it means that someone at the school, whether a teacher, cafeteria worker, or a state program advisor (it’s still unclear which, though the first two seem much more likely if you’ve ever seen lunch time at a day care center) observed that the child lacked milk and suggested she go through the line to get some if she wanted it. The child then mistakenly believed that going through the line meant she had to get an entirely new lunch.
This version also refutes the statement in the second-linked article from the top of this post that the alleged “state agent” ordered full cafeteria meals for every child in the program that day even as it confirms that no “state agent” was running around inspecting lunch boxes.
Careful. We don't want to learn from this.