A Utah school’s child nutrition manager threw out the lunches of about 40 elementary school students this week after the kids’ parents fell behind on payment.
Some parents at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City say they didn’t even realize they were indebted to the school. The school apparently made calls Monday and Tuesday telling some parents that there was a balance on their accounts, and the children of those who had missed the call were the ones whose lunches got thrown out.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the child nutrition manager’s original plan was to withhold lunches for kids whose parents hadn’t paid. But cafeteria workers were unable to distinguish who was on that list before serving. Once the food had been dished out, food safety codes say it can’t be given to another student and must be thrown away.
The children were given milk and fruit instead of a full lunch — the meal that the school says it gives any child who isn’t able to pay.
“So she took my lunch away and said, ‘Go get a milk,’ ” recalled one student, a fifth grader named Sophia. “I came back and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ Then she handed me an orange. She said, ‘You don’t have any money in your account so you can’t get lunch.’”
Parents were outraged by the move, calling it “traumatic and humiliating.”
Salt Lake City’s school district has apologized to parents and students for the incident. “We again apologize and commit to working with parents in rectifying this situation and to ensuring students are never treated in this manner again,” the district said in a Facebook note.
Still, the incident raises longstanding questions about child nutrition and low-income families. It is not the first time that students have had their lunch thrown out for insufficient funds. In November, a Texas middle school student’s lunch was thrown away because he was 30 cents short on payment.
But depriving children of food — and embarrassing them in front of their peers — isn’t the only option. In Boston, for example, public schools provide all students with cost-free breakfast and lunch no matter their financial situation.
A compelling set of evidence drives such decisions. Child hunger has lasting impacts on children’s mental health, as well as cognitive and social ability. And while more than one in five children lack stable access to food, only half of the students who are eligible for free breakfasts actually receive them.