North Carolina officials have said there was a misunderstanding when a preschooler's homemade lunch was sent home for not meeting certain nutritional requirements, but now a second mother from the same school has come forward exclusively to The Blaze to say the same thing happened to her daughter.
Diane Zambrano says her 4-year-old daughter, Jazlyn, is in the same West Hoke Elementary School class as the little girl whose lunch gained national attention earlier this week. When Zambrano picked Jazlyn up from school late last month, she was told by Jazlyn's teacher that the lunch she had packed that day did not meet the necessary guidelines and that Jazlyn had been sent to the cafeteria.
The lunch Zambrano packed for her daughter? A cheese and salami sandwich on a wheat bun with apple juice. The lunch she got in the cafeteria? Chicken nuggets, a sweet potato, bread and milk.
"She never eats breakfast or lunch at the school," Zambrano said of her daughter during an interview with The Blaze. "We always wake up early and make her lunch."
It happens "every so often"
That day, Zambrano said she picked Jazlyn up from school and asked if she ate her lunch.
"She's not picky about food but you have to be on top of her," she explained.
When Jazlyn said she didn't eat what her mother had made her, Zambrano went to her teacher and demanded to know what happened. She said the teacher told her an official had come through that day to inspect students' lunches and that those who were lacking certain food groups were sent to the cafeteria. After she received her cafeteria food, the teacher told Zambrano, Jazlyn was told to put her homemade lunch back in her lunchbox and set it on the floor.
Zambrano said the teacher told her it was not the first time student lunches have been inspected, and that officials come "every so often."
Part of a regular program?
The policing of children's food at West Hoke has been portrayed as an isolated incident, but a curious memo Jazlyn brought home to her mother seems to point to something more.
The memo Jazlyn brought from the school outlines the necessary nutritional requirements students' homemade lunches must contain: two servings of fruit or vegetables, one serving of dairy, one serving of grain and one serving of meat or meat substitute. Included with the memo was a separate sheet, this one a bill for the cafeteria food Jazlyn was served.
The memo, dated Jan. 27 with the subject line "RE: Healthy Lunches," was signed by school principal Jackie Samuels and said, while "we welcome students to bring lunches from home … it must be a nutritious, balanced meal with the above requirements. Students, who do not bring a healthy lunch, will be offered the missing portions which may result in a fee from the cafeteria."
Zambrano, who's volunteered at the school in the past, said she was never told about any such nutritional requirements before her daughter's lunch was replaced.
"That's not really the school's responsibility," she said, adding she's extremely health-conscious and doesn't feed her daughter junk food or let her drink soda -- or even eat the tater tots or other fried foods often served in the cafeteria.
"They give the choice of pizza and hot donuts...none of that is healthy," Zambrano said.
According to the program requirements for North Carolina's pre-kindergarten program, schools "must provide breakfast and/or snacks and lunch meeting USDA requirements during the regular school day."
The partial or full cost of meals, the requirements state, "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."
The school's reaction
Reached Friday morning, a representative from the Hoke County School Superintendent's office denied knowing anything about what happened with Jazlyn's lunch and said they had no record of a complaint. Reached again, a different representative said they had "no information at this time" about the situation. A West Hoke Elementary official similarly denied any knowledge and referred all questions to the school district.
Principal Samuels previously told the Carolina Journal he "didn't know anything about" parents being charged for cafeteria meals after the first preschooler's mother -- who has not been identified -- came forward.
Bob Barnes, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told the McClatchy News Service Thursday that the first preschooler to make headlines just misunderstood her teacher when she thought she was told to ditch her homemade lunch for one from the cafeteria: the cafeteria items were only meant to supplement the food groups missing from the homemade lunch.
"We are not the lunch bag police," Barnes told McClatchy. "We would never put a child in any type of embarrassing situation. But we are responsible to see that every child gets a nutritious meal."
Barnes confirmed there was an agent from Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Child Development and Early Education at the school Jan. 30 who examined six student lunches and determined one did not make the nutritional cut -- presumably the first little girl whose story made news.
Zambrano said she's not positive which day Jazlyn's lunch was inspected, whether it was Jan. 27 -- the date the memo was issued -- or Jan. 30. Either way, one of two conclusions seem plausible: more than one student's lunch was changed, or an official inspected student lunches on more than one occasion -- which Zambrano said Jazlyn's teacher told her had been the case.
In a statement to The Blaze, the Division of Child Development and Early Education said it is investigating what happened but flatly denied any of its employees or contractors "instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items." The division issued a similar statement to McClatchy even after Barnes said it was one of their agents who examined the lunches.
"It is not DHHS' policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home. The facts we have gathered confirm that no DHHS employee or contractor did this," the statement said.
Edited by Jonathon M. Seidl.