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Critics see gov't meddling in school lunch swap

Friday - 2/17/2012, 12:07am  ET

By EMERY DALESIO
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - It was a tale of government meddling that outraged radio talk show hosts and a pair of Congress members: A 4-year-old was forced to dump her packed lunch and eat a state-dictated cafeteria lunch of chicken nuggets. Now school officials are blaming a teacher's error in making sure the child had a nutritious meal.

The incident happened two weeks ago at an elementary school in Raeford, near Fort Bragg. The girl's parents anonymously tipped off a Raleigh TV station and a conservative blogger after the girl brought home her packed lunch uneaten.

Conservatives who see it as yet another example of government overreach leaped on the story, and it reached a pair of North Carolina's U.S. representatives, Republican Renee Ellmers and Democrat Larry Kissel. They wrote a letter asking U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to investigate.

"The content of a school lunch provided to a child by their parents should be governed only by the child's parents, not another government bureaucrat," they wrote in the letter.

"This is also kind of adding on to a lot of things that we're seeing coming out of the Obama Administration" that conservatives oppose, like requiring insurance coverage of contraceptives, Ellmers' press secretary Tom Doheny said. "We're joining this bipartisan call to get any and all information. It's one of those things that if it looks like a rat, and smells like a rat, odds are it could be."

A Kissell spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The cafeteria details are true, but rather than an example of government "lunch bag police" overruling a family, it's an embarrassing lapse by a teacher, Hoke County Schools Assistant Superintendent Bob Barnes said Thursday.

The girl's teacher should have handed the child a carton of milk to round out the turkey-and-cheese sandwich and banana she brought from home. Instead, the teacher erred by telling the tyke to get a cafeteria lunch, Barnes said.

"We do not go over and stare down every child's lunch," Barnes said. "If you looked at the lunch the child had, I'd love to have that lunch today. However, there are occasions that kids bring lunches that aren't that complete, and that's why we try to supplement them with the things that they need to make it a complete lunch."

The North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten is a state-run enrichment program to help 4-year-olds at risk of starting school lagging behind their peers. Ninety percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The program has 1,100 sites serving 25,000 children and is required to supply a healthful lunch. The U.S. Agriculture Department defines that as a serving of milk, two servings of fruits or vegetables, one serving of grain, and one serving of meat or protein.

The federal agency had no involvement in the case involving a local school district and state supervision of nutrition policies, USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said.

USDA does not "regulate sack lunches or any other food children bring from home to eat at school. That is a responsibility for parents, not the federal government," Rowe said.

Barnes said the school is apologizing to the child's parents for startling the girl and sending her through a cafeteria line she was unaccustomed to.

"I am so sorry this happened to this little girl," Barnes said. "On that day, the policy wasn't followed, and hey, we're the grown folks here. That's our fault. The teacher never should have sent that little girl into that line. She should have gone over and picked up the missing item and brought it to her."

The girl's name was withheld for her privacy, Barnes said. A state legislator contacted by the family did not return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The mistake isn't a sign teachers are delving into diet details where they don't belong, Barnes said.

"We're not trying to force government down anybody's throat. All we're trying to do is make sure that our children get a good education and a nutritious meal every day," Barnes said. "It comes back to: We had an employee who made a mistake."

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)