I’ve seen various representations of this post going around online in the past couple weeks: “Feds Order School to Ban Packed Lunches Without Doctor’s Note…” These posts show an image of a note from a school stating:

Dear Parents,

I have received word from Federal Programs Preschool pertaining to lunches from home. Parents are to be informed that students can only bring lunches from home if there is a medical condition requiring a specific diet, along with a physicians note to that regard.

I am sorry for any inconvenience. If you have any questions concerning this matter, please contact Stephanie [redacted] the Health Coordinator for Federal Programs Preschool at [redacted].

Thanks,

Ms. [redacted]

Is this true? Is there some sort of federal guideline that is preventing parents from sending lunches with their kids to preschool?

The situation sounded a bit fishy, and so I decided to do some research. The people chatting at this Skeptics forum helped me figure out the truth, so I thought I’d reproduce it here with some links and helpful information to debunk this rumor.

First, it’s important to note that the “Federal Programs Preschool” is referencing Head Start. Head Start is a federal program–it provides low-income families with access to “comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services.” Operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start was particularly affected during the government shutdown. A story on NPR nearly made me cry a few weeks ago as I listened to a Head Start director talk about her fears for the children she couldn’t take care of during the shutdown. Where were they going to get their meals? Who was going to watch them during the day while their parents worked? How long would their lives be disrupted and uncertain because of the government shutdown?

Head Start does provide meals to its participants. During the school day, kids in the program are provided with breakfast, lunch, and snacks. You can read ALL of the meal and snack-related policies in the Head Start Performance Standards PDF. (Pro-tip: Just do a Ctrl+F for the word “meals” and look at every relevant result.) These are the most interesting facts I found regarding the food provided to children who are enrolled in a Head Start program:

  • Children must be provided with all meals during the hours they are there, including breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
  • Infants are to be fed on-demand and must be held while being fed.
  • Food may never be used as a punishment, and no child will be forced to eat what is provided to him or her.
  • Medically based diets must be accommodated via the provided meals.
  • An attempt will be made to ensure that everyone is, in general, eating the same meal, and that teachers and children eat together at meal time in a family-style setting.
  • All children must be provided with sufficient time to eat their meals.
  • Meals and snacks must abide by all federal and local safety regulations.
  • It appears that students must be provided with meals, whether or not meals are also sent from home.

There is something really important that is not included at all in the federal guidelines is any restriction of what may be brought into the classroom for an individual child to eat. (The guidelines in the parent handbook for the Head Start program in Henrico, Virginia, where this note is supposedly from, require that any treats brought in for birthdays be store-bought, which is exactly the same as the rule at my daughter’s church-run daycare.) In fact, one of those skeptics on the forum I linked to a few paragraphs ago contacted the Virginia Department of Education and was informed: “There is no federal policy that restricts parents from supplying meals from home. The center may have decided to restrict lunches from home because they can’t get reimbursed but there is no such federal policy.”

If there is nothing in the federal guidelines that restricts what parents can send to school, how do we explain this image? There are a few options.

Option #1) The note is fictional. I’m not inclined to believe that the woman who originally published this note on her blog is making it all up. Often with images like this, we can’t trace it back to its original source. In this instance, we can. I do believe that the mom received this note, and I suspect that her frustration is legitimate and well earned. Which leads me to the second option.

Option #2) The school is willfully misinterpreting federal guidelines. This is also a little bit difficult to believe, although I suppose I wouldn’t put it past some schools. I can’t think of what benefit it would be to make this policy, though, which has nothing to do with actual federal guidelines. Maybe, though, it was just easier to blame “federal guidelines” than actually try to solve an inconvenience. Perhaps the school is having a hard time keeping the kids’ home-brought meals refrigerated appropriately. I know it was always an issue at my daughter’s daycare for me to bring a lunch because I had to separate out the refrigerated portions, as they didn’t have room for the entire lunch bag to go into the fridge. Perhaps there have been issues with allergies, or parents sending insufficient meals. I think it would have been easy for someone at the school to say, “Let’s just chalk it up to the guidelines.” Another explanation could be what the USDA representative said in the e-mail I quoted from earlier: perhaps the school just can’t get reimbursement for lunches brought from home, and have therefore decided to limit the existence of non-school meals. That seems pretty disappointing, but when you’re running on a severely limited budget like many Head Start programs are, I can imagine that would be pretty tempting. Again, they may have decided to pass the buck to the federal government, even if the federal government has no such policy. Of course, there is a less nefarious option, as well.

Option #3) The school is accidentally misinterpreting the federal guidelines. This one seems somewhat likely to me. The part in the guidelines about how schools MUST provide meals and snacks to students? I wonder if that is allowing this misinterpretation. Someone might have looked at that guideline and read it as the idea that because they have to provide the meals, then students can’t bring other meals to school. The part about having a doctor’s note is simply to allow them to follow the other really clear guideline, which is that medical dietary needs must be honored.

The main thing people seem to be frustrated with in the multiple representations of this posting is the idea that the federal government is determining whether or not a parent can determine a child’s meals during school and therefore removes the parents’ authority on this issue. The fact is undeniable, though: there are no federal guidelines preventing parents from sending meals with their Head Start-enrolled children to school.

I can’t answer exactly what is going on with this school, but I do know that the concern that the federal government is telling parents they can’t send lunches with their kids to school is simply untrue. This is good news for everyone. Please let others know, when you see them sharing this rumor, that there is more to this story that meets the eye. Remember, if something sounds fishy or weird, it probably is. Whether it’s something you see on the internet or something you receive in a note from your own teacher, don’t be afraid to do your own research and point out inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the information that is being provided to you.

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