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, where she is Green section editor. Find her at and

10 thoughts on “Lunch at school: when “homemade” raises an alarm”

  1. that is ridiculous. I would have my child bring a USDA conforming lunch if he actually had time to do so.

    Lunch time is a grand total of 25 minutes and that includes them getting out of their snow gear and such. In the early weeks of school, my son brought some type of carb/starch, protein, fruit and vegetables. But after weeks and weeks of me throwing food away, we figured that in the amount of time that is given to him, pretty much all he can take would be the main course of starch and protein. Sometimes, he gets to sneak in a bite of fruit but more often than not, that’s at the expense of the protein.

    How about they increase the amount of time accorded at lunch too if they insist on the kids eating as laid out by the USDA?

  2. I would flip out if anyone at my kids’ school ever told them they couldn’t eat the lunch I carefully packed. Our dinner last night had 3 full servings of fresh veggies (mashed cauliflower, green beans, broccoli) so if I sent a PBJ and a clementine–which my kindergartener barely has time to eat anyhow–it doesn’t mean she’s not getting a balanced diet at the end of the day. I support the school lunch program. It’s important. Our elem school does a pretty good job offering real food and my kids enjoy a school breakfast and/or lunch a few days a week. But we could do better by letting current, updated science drive the rules, not the Big Ag lobbyists. And, as always, a healthy dose of common sense.

  3. This story is outrageous but not hard to believe the school lunch program approves donuts with sprinkles because the sprinkles contain vitamin A pathetic when my children attended public school (we now homeschool) we dealt all the time with lunch issues because we are a vegetarian family I would be outraged if someone forced processed meat products on one of my children

  4. I am glad that i am in the uk , as a while back they did a big overhaul off the school meals and general nutrition in schools.

    My son can take fruit or veg or a grain based healthy snack for his break.

    They are provided water bottles at the start of term and they can drink milk or water but no juice.

    For school dinners there is a sensible meal,consisting normally of meat , two veg and a carb, a dessert which is normally fruit and yogurt or the odd pudding or ice cream and jelly. They do serve chips on a Friday.

    Its by no means super healthy as i said above however the menu is planned a month in advance and a copy is provided to the parents.

    They do not serve any processed foods such as chicken nuggets.

    For lunches parents are generally asked to provide their children with a sensible lunch and one treat food( biscuit , crisps , chocolate) can be included.

    Nor would they remove a childs lunch unless it contained nuts there are a few kids in the school with nut allergies. I do know a mother that was asked to try and include more healthy foods for her son, however his lunches were really just treat foods.

  5. I don’t see how that lunch did not fit the guidelines, with the exception of “milk.” The child still had dairy because of the cheese! Like the author, I have a gluten-sensitivity (actually, I have Celiac disease). My children will probably have it, as well, because it is genetic and almost everyone in my family has it in some form or other. This truly angers me. If I send my children to public school, I will already worry that they will be exposed to gluten-filled foods because of the temptation to share food at the lunch table! At 4, I do not believe that my children would know any better (or know how to express that if they did). If my child was forced to eat the gluten-filled food by some well-meaning yet over-stepping teacher, it would have severe health ramifications for him/her. Would the school system then pay the doctor’s bill?

    This does not even take into account that I stay away from ALL processed food! I do not want my children exposed to it, either. I understand that some parents do NOT pay attention to their children’s food choices and some parents use the reasoning that it is too expensive to buy anything but junk food. However, do not force all children to eat the school’s “healthy lunch option” when, as in our case, our children are eating the healthiest option – FROM HOME!

  6. Thank you so much with regard to writing your own report Lunch at school: when “homemade” raises an alarm All Things Mothering . I never knew this info, i really could keep that useful today so we could reference the idea in the foreseeable future.

  7. I just happened to findcome across your website and this write up Lunch at school: when “homemade” raises an alarm All Things Mothering. The words you give kind of causes me think. Thanks for sharing.

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