Update: Darlene Bowden has been offered her job back.
A school cafeteria worker at Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho was fired after giving a 12-year-old student a free lunch. The cafeteria worker, Darlene Bowden, said the girl was hungry but didn’t have any money to purchase the $1.70 lunch.
According to EastIdahoNews.com, Bowden was dismissed “due to her theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food.” Bowden offered to pay the school back for the lunch but her supervisor would not take it. She said she will take legal action now that the school has accused her of theft.
The school board would not respond to EastIdahoNews.com’s requests for more information on the decision, saying it was a personnel matter. Irving Middle School administrators did not respond to requests for comment from the publication. ThinkProgress reached out to the school district, but received a message that the school was closed for winter break.
Bowden and Shelley Allen, a spokesperson for the school, have conflicting accounts of what the school does when students reach their $11 credit limit for lunch. Although Shelley Allen said students who reach the credit limit receive a meal, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk, Bowden told EastIdahoNews.com that workers are supposed to take a child’s tray away and throw their meal in the trash if they exceed the limit.
Bowden created a GoFundMe page to get a lawyer, writing, “I love my job, I really do,This just breaks my heart, and I was in the wrong, but what do you do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry, and they don’t have any money? I handed her the tray.”
She has received $845 out of the $20,000 she hopes to raise.
A similar incident happened last June when a Della Curry, a kitchen manager for an elementary school in Aurora, Colorado, lost her job after giving students free lunches. The district would give students hot meals and charge a parent’s account if the child forgot lunch money three times. But if a child forgot their money a fourth time, their usual meal would be thrown away and they would have to eat a single slice of cheese on a hamburger bun with a milk instead of a regular meal. Curry told ABC News, “It’s not nutrition. It’s not healthy … It’s wrong on so many levels, and I hated to see food go to waste. I hated to see food thrown away that could’ve been given to these children that are hungry.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 21 million low-income children rely on free or reduced-price school lunches for their nutritional needs on an average school day. Three out of five teachers teaching students in grades three through eight said they regularly see students come to school hungry, according to the nonprofit organization No Kid Hungry, which advocates for ending child hunger nationwide. Hunger also affects children’s cognitive and social development. Free breakfast can mean a bump in students’ academic success and a decrease in the number of absences they have from school.
Unfortunately, stories of students having their lunches thrown away because they exceeded their limit for school lunches are fairly common. For example, last year, a first-grader in Washington was told “Guess what, you can’t have a lunch,” and was sent home without a meal and was given a slip showing he had a negative balance for lunches. As was the case in Idaho, a spokesperson for the Washington school said students still get a meal — a cheese sandwich and vegetables for example — if a student’s account goes over the limit, even though the child did not receive a lunch that day.
In Utah last year, a school dumped 40 elementary students’ lunches away after parents’ lunch accounts were in the red. In 2013, a Texas school threw away a child’s breakfast because he was 30 cents short of paying for the meal. This approach doesn’t only apply to students who pay for lunch. Students who receive free lunch experience similar incidents of shaming. Colorado students attending a charter school had their hands stamped when receiving their free lunches, and one student said he received cheese bread instead of pizza in order to mark the difference in his hot lunches from his peers’ hot lunches.
Last year, in an effort to destigmatize free lunches and prevent incidents like these, First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the expansion of a program that provides all students in a school, regardless of income, free meals, which include breakfast and lunch. In July of 2014, it expanded to 22,000 schools across the nation. Baltimore City Public Schools, where 84 percent of students qualified for free and reduced price lunch, took advantage of the program last summer. Baltimore schools have some of the highest lunch prices in the nation, at $3 for each lunch. Some of the largest school districts in the nation, such as Chicago Public Schools, the Dallas School District, Boston Public Schools and Indianapolis Public Schools have also joined in to provide free lunches to all students.