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Feb 15, 2012

Why Did The Turkey Cross The Lunch Room?

Today I read a news report about the North Carolina school-lunch inspector who deemed a pre-K child’s “sack lunch” as unfit, forcing the child to eat from a standard platter that met the USDA standard of nutrition. Several people are upset about this, and I believe there is validity to be concerned. Based on the information we have been given, it does seem unreasonable and an invasion of parental rights.
However, as I read this I kept thinking that there must be more to the story and searched for additional information that would help make some logic as to how this apparent silliness happen. Now, many will blame a far-too-intrusive government explanation; that could be true. Some might suspect a windfall scandal by forcing parents to buy the school supplied meals. Others will follow my lead and believe we weren’t told the whole story, which is also possible.
With those possible explanations in mind, let’s also consider why would a school have a “home lunch inspector” at all? It is understandable why the USDA standards exist to provide children who buy their lunch at school, but why does it matter about those parents who exercise their liberties to send lunch with their children? There are many theories, but I believe this most likely began innocently and with very good intentions. Unfortunately, like the road paved with such, it soon led to the media-hell it became today.
Let’s consider an extreme example to discern what is within the school’s obligation for the protection of the children in its care. After all, that is the explanation being given for this incident – to protect our children from becoming obese. Yes, that’s the initiative behind the current standards, but the premise is rooted in protection, not necessarily the obesity threat specifically.
The school has an obligation to protect children from general, non-specific threats, such as fire for our extreme example. If a child catches fire, for whatever reason, the workers at the school have a duty to put the flames out and provide care for that child. If the staff ignored a burning student, parents would sue and a public outrage over the negligence would certainly occur. And I said “for whatever reason” to cover the even-more extreme event should the child’s parent be the one to ignite the child on school grounds.
Okay – I did say extreme. But no one would disagree that the school would be duty-bound on moral, ethical, health and safety grounds to protect that child if even the parent were causing direct harm by fire. So, switch the offense to hunger, but let’s stay extreme. If a parent failed to send any food with the child, what obligation does the school have? Now, one might be able to argue “religious fasting” in infrequent circumstances, but I believe most would argue the school has an obligation to feed that child.
The reality is the school likely chooses this obligation more based in fear of litigation and poor public opinion than it does in moral or health values. Nonetheless, the choice is still the same; the obligation remains; and the school “forces” the child to eat a platter from the cafeteria in our “extreme” example.
Now, it is a matter of determining where to draw the line. Even those who feel the new story above falls into “fascist government intrusion” of parental rights will probably agree the school should feed that child whose parents fail to send any food at all. So, I believe most would agree that the school is in a tough position on when to take such a stance; the institution can't err too far on one side or the other. It is possible this story is merely a genuine concern about proper nutrition for children because of ignorant or negligent parenting, blurring the line between a poor meal and no meal at all. Perhaps the worker meant well, but drew the line a little too far from center and more towards the personal-trainer side of the line; now the school won’t back down because one infraction should not take away from the grander premise of protecting the children.
If that were true, then I would feel better and gracefully forgive the overzealous school worker. However, when I mentioned there must be more to the story…well, there is. And sadly, odds are this is not about the children’s health or protecting them from obesity, despite the well-made case to elicit sympathy for the premise and agenda.
After researching a bit further beyond the headline news articles, I discovered more information which made it seem like Pharisaic rule-keeping on the USDA standards. The apple juice the mother sent failed the USDA standard because it was not a 100% juice product. The potato chips were not permitted to count as a vegetable. Perhaps both of these “violations” were valid in the perfect-interpretation of USDA standard, but it still seems like splitting hairs for a lunch that did include a banana and a turkey-and-cheese sandwich. Those items met three of the four requirements. It seems it would have been simpler to hand the child a box of raisins and called it good. But rule-sticklers are not to be trifled with…
However, the final missing detail made this story all come together for me. I blame an unaccountable bureaucracy combined with greed and pride for this lunch substitution decision. The nutritional ruling did not come from a school staff member. Instead it was a state-worker from Human Services who was present to inspect lunches.
This pre-K program was a special program receiving funding from the State of North Carolina. The earnings to the school were measured by metrics, and compliance with the USDA meal standard per child was a large factor in those dollars. The school had previously lost points (and therefore dollars) because the provable USDA meal-quota was not high enough. The point-loss was significant to cause either one of two things, depending on whose conjecture one believes. Either the school called the state-worker in to rule on the nutritional value of the sack-lunches or the scores were low enough to prompt the visit from the State who pre-conceived an existing nutrition problem and felt funding might need to be cut.
Whichever way, the motivation is not about the protection, health, or well-being of the children. Instead it is about the money. And how ironic is that for a non-profit, social program designed for the common good to be corrupted by money. I guess Wall Street doesn’t have the monopoly on greed after all.


  1. First, I love the use of the word "Pharisaic," but I mostly love your open-mindedness to dig deeper. So many comment on things they have neither read or delved into, so I applaud your efforts to do so. I agree; give them raisins and call it a day. However, school has become big business, and it's a sad comentary on the state of education today.

  2. Yes, a sad commentary....but not so much on education as on ever-increasing government control, and continuing loss of freedom.

  3. UPDATE!!!

    There is now a news report claiming the original story and the interview from the original journalist is an incorrect acount of the incident. This latest information seems to reduce the severity of the incident.,0,5771122.story