By Marcus Flores
Of the 14,000 public school districts in the United States, only one has made national headlines for having provided chicken nuggets as the healthful alternative to turkey and cheese on wheat: North Carolina’s Hoke County Schools. The Carolina Journal reported on February 14, 2012 that an anonymous “state agent” (who, despite the school system’s best efforts, could not then be located) made a four-year-old girl purchase chicken nuggets to accompany her home-packed lunch.
The incident may be pinned to the list of adverse side effects of a well-intentioned, but clumsy, federal response to the current obesity epidemic. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) somewhat imperiously requires all young students to eat a lunch of meat, milk, grain, and two servings of either vegetables or fruit. Given the viral media response to the West Hoke Elementary School squabble, it was clear that many Americans were surprised to learn federal nutrition standards even existed. More curiously, the story also suggests another point of interest: Hoke County Schools are perhaps the only district in the nation currently in compliance with the federal mandate.
Indeed, the feds show an admittedly strange set of priorities when choosing their battles.
You may not remember the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 Amish raid that included “aliases, surprise inspection and surreptitious purchases” for the sake of quelling the illicit sale of unpasteurized milk. Let it be known that milk maids will now be harassed and barn doors will be kicked down over this nefarious contraband. Granted, unpasteurized milk—otherwise known as raw milk—can potentially cause serious gastric illnesses according to the FDA. So can shellfish. The consumer of raw milk ipso facto assumes a similar risk as the diner slurping down raw oysters by the dozen. It’s worth noting that the Amish, despite medicinal chastity, continue to live as long as their worldly counterparts (72 years)—unpasteurized milk and all.
Returning to the story at hand, Principal Jackie Samuels of West Hoke Elementary authored a letter to parents stating (or reminding?) that nutritionally deficient home lunches would be supplemented with the missing items at the parent’s expense, even if they go uneaten. Samuels also cited a “state inspector” as the lunchbox investigator in an interview with the Carolina Journal. Other sources identified an employee from the Department of Agriculture as the culprit. The DHHS denied any involvement from its employees, and the whodunit continued until a school investigation eventually named a teacher, Ms. Maynor, as the employee responsible for having “amended” the four year old’s lunch.
At that point, the district might have prevented further national embarrassment by issuing an official statement in defense of its employee, something like: “Ms. Maynor is an excellent young teacher still adjusting to the school’s official policy. We are taking appropriate measures to ensure this remains an isolated incident—&etc.” Instead, Hoke County impaled itself by suspending Ms. Maynor until “the issue could be resolved.” What issue? Her careful obedience of statutes?
Ergo, an axiom: the government does not make a good parent. Government is simply too complex. There are national agencies like the Department of Health of Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, in addition to agencies for those agencies, such as the FDA. Policies (sometimes impractical) develop somewhere within this nexus.
Maynor’s suspension (and eventual resignation) illustrates a corollary: those honoring the laws suffer from them. Her sad case only portends that others may fall victim to the government’s recent health crusade. General Mills and Kraft Foods are currently clawing for an answer to proposed FDA salt regulations aimed at preventing heart disease.
Genetics and lifestyle choices spur the majority of human diseases, and these two factors should lie beyond the realm of governance. But since the government chooses to intervene, it would serve us well to remember that children cannot be expected to make sound nutritional choices when they cannot even spell their own names. So here’s an idea: integrate nutritional studies into a child friendly lesson plan. Make sure it works, then make it a core curriculum requirement that every child demonstrate sound nutritional choices upon exiting preschool and kindergarten. This will likely require a committee of educators and dietitians alike. If Hoke County schools would like to lead the charge, Ms. Maynor is probably still looking for a job.