A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School in North Carolina was told to eat three chicken nuggets for lunch last month after school officials told her that the lunch her mother packed did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.
The girl's turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice fell short of USDA requirements, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day, writes Sara Burrows at the Carolina Journal.
The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs to meet the contentious USDA guidelines.
These guidelines roughly means that lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, and if home-packed lunches do not meet these requirements, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.
The girl's mother, however, doesn't agree on the ruling on what she gives her daughter for lunch. She received 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.
"I don't feel that I should pay for a cafeteria lunch when I provide lunch for her from home," the mother said.
And a spokeswoman for the Division of Child Development agreed, saying that the homemade lunch should not have been a problem.
Jani Kozlowski, the fiscal and statutory policy manager for the division, said:
"With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that's the dairy.
"It sounds like the lunch itself would've met all of the standard."
Many believe that there are some unclear parts of the guidelines, which stipulate that the lunch must include a fruit or vegetable, but not both. There are no clear restrictions about additional items like potato chips.
It is also ambiguous on whether the school is allowed to charge for the cafeteria lunches they are compelled to offer.
The state regulation reads:
"Sites must provide breakfast and/or snacks and lunch meeting USDA requirements during the regular school day. The partial/full cost of meals may be charged when families do not qualify for free/reduced price meals.
"When children bring their own food for meals and snacks to the center, if the food does not meet the specified nutritional requirements, the center must provide additional food necessary to meet those requirements."
However, despite the lack of clarity, Kozlowski doesn't believe the parents should have been charged.
"The school may have interpreted [the rule] to mean they felt like the lunch wasn't meeting the nutritional requirements and so they wanted the child to have the school lunch and then charged the parent.
"It sounds like maybe a technical assistance need for that school."
The school principal, Jackie Samuels, claims to have not known about parents being charged for the meals that day.
"I know they eat in the cafeteria. Whether they pay or not, they eat in the cafeteria."