Lunch at school: when “homemade” raises an alarm

Maybe it was just a mistake when a preschool worker recently deemed a four-year-old’s home-packed lunch inadequate in its conforming to USDA guidelines and instead had the girl eat chicken nuggets. Perhaps we don’t all have to sneak into our children’s cafeterias to see if someone is rifling through the meals we prepare for them.

But even if you think the reaction to this incident in North Carolina was blown out of proportion, it is a good opportunity to remind all of us nutrition-minded parents in public institutions to stay on top of government policy when it comes to what feed our children.

In this case, someone at the pre-K program at West Hoke Elementary School – it’s still unclear who – determined that the girl’s home-packed lunch of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, apple juice and potato chips needed to be replaced by the USDA-approved school lunch. So she ate three chicken nuggets.

As required by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, lunches in schools – including pre-K programs in schools and in day care settings – need to conform to USDA dietary guidelines and include one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, and one serving of meat (or presumably a “meat alternate” as they’re called on the USDA website).

A lot of people have been heartened by the USDA’s move to include more whole grains and more fruits and vegetables in its guidelines. But the guidelines and the food pyramid-replacing My Plate also have a lot of critics, most notably the traditional foods-promoting Weston A. Price Foundation, which last year came out with an alternative set of guidelines called Healthy 4 Life. The Foundation, led by Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats author Sally Fallon Morell, argues that children need full-fat dairy – not processed reduced-fat milk products – and protein from pasture raised animals.

In a press release about the North Carolina incident, the Foundation said that it determined that the USDA guidelines “provide inadequate nutrition for growing children. Specifically, the guidelines do not permit sufficient fat soluble vitamins, A, D, and K, and critical nutrients for neurological development, choline and Vitamin B-12.”

It doesn’t require a nutrition degree, though, to conclude that there’s something wrong with a system that privileges governmental policies over the decisions of parents, whether you like the USDA guidelines or not. If parents are going to take the time to pack their children a lunch (rather than pay the $1.25 that this mother was later charged), they shouldn’t expect that their food is going to be rejected by another adult.

Could governmental regulations possibly protect children who are being sent to school with junk food? Maybe. But wouldn’t a better recourse be some kind of communication and education before slapping the child with a bill for a lunch of three chicken nuggets she didn’t ask to eat?

Part of the concern here is that the USDA guidelines are influenced by forces greater than vitamin, fat and sodium counts. (When the FDA recently recommended lowered sodium intake, the Price Foundation argued against low-salt diets, saying they predispose children to poor neurological development). No, beyond the numbers, there are bigger political forces at play, as there are for everything.

The school lunch program is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so its policies and findings have always been and will continue to be connected to the larger political picture of farming, which means to subsidies and programs that might have money valued higher than health. One need only watch the documentary Lunch Line or check out Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California Studies in Food and Culture) or Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America) to see that school food is inherently political.

I decided to send my son to a public school that held lunch in the classroom, where I hoped he would be less overwhelmed by noise and bright lights and better able to enjoy the meal I prepared for him. My goal is not to have him grow up casting judgment on other people’s food choices but to have the foundation of a healthy body that won’t be damaged but processed foods and gluten, the way mine was.

My personal health journey has led me to distrust a lot of commonly-held beliefs about food, such as the idea that fat is bad for you and that lots of whole grains are good for you. Not if you have celiac disease, and probably not anyway, especially with today’s more gluten-ful grains and especially if they aren’t properly prepared. Dr. Rodney Ford has found gluten sensitivity among many test subjects without celiac disease. There’s still a lot to learn about the health impacts of all the products that have only been around a short time, evolutionarily speaking, or that have been modified from the versions our ancestors ate. No one diet works for everyone, but the USDA guidelines imply otherwise. It’s one thing if they’re guidelines, but it’s another if they lead to overstepping parental choice in what a child eats.

Although I’ve been eating close to home and minimally processed food for a while now, I just have just recently been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.) about her family’s year of eating only what they could produce or source locally and Didi Emmons’s Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm. These seasonal-eating books are inspiring. Although I know how important the school lunch and breakfast programs are for many families, it makes my head hurt to think that these programs could be used to subvert my intentional, thoughtful decisions about what food my son eats.

I don’t love everything about public schools, but I do want to be part of them to help them be great for all kids. I will continue to make my son’s lunch because I believe that is the healthiest choice for him, but I will also be sure to make it to the Saturday school gardening days and start working on some Farm-to-Table events to ensure that all kids have a connection to their food and don’t think it just grows out of little cardboard or styrofoam trays.

Jessica Claire Haney

About Jessica Claire Haney

Jessica Claire Haney is a freelance writer, editor and tutor living in Northern Virginia. A former high school English teacher and now mother of two, Jessica writes about birth, VBACtivism, breastfeeding, Real Food nutrition, holistic health, mindful parenting, and green living on her blog, Crunchy-Chewy Mama, in her Family Today column at the Washington Times Communities, and at TheDCMoms.com, where she is Green section editor. Find her at CrunchyChewyMama.com and JessicaClaireHaney.com.