Picture this. School-age children with rumbling tummies move their styrofoam trays in an orderly lunch line. It’s Tuesday, and at Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City that means one thing for excited youngsters: pizza day. Students fill their trays with deep-dish pepperoni slices and napa salad and head to the lunch lady for checkout.
That’s when tragedy struck for about 40 of Utah’s smallest residents, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. If a student’s lunch money account wasn’t paid up, the cafeteria workers were instructed to confiscate the child’s lunch. Because of sanitary issues the lunch couldn’t be given to another student, so it was thrown away instead, while a hungry child watched.
The child was then sent on his or her way, with a piece of fruit and a carton of milk.
The problem that the district-imposed hunger strike was meant to fix was a “large number of students” with zero or negative balances in the accounts that kids use to purchase the $2.00 lunches. Staff began a campaign to call parents to settle up, but not all the calls had been made by lunchtime and for those kids, it was tough luck.
The Utah lunch line story has gone viral, and for good reason—it’s almost inconceivable. In what world does this begin to make sense? Just how much could a parent owe that would warrant embarrassing and basically, starving, small children? And why would you punish a child for the transgressions of his parent?
Parents described the incident as “traumatic and humiliating” for their kids. Lunch ladies were reportedly in tears being forced carry out a directive that goes against the entire purpose of their work.
Once one moves past the gob smacking cruelty of the plan, a larger stupidity is realized: throwing out perfectly good food because of an account deficit is not only wasteful, it’s spiteful. (Did you wait until pizza day, Salt Lake City school district, to really stick it to the little moochers?)
Even more shocking than the callous treatment of these kids, is just how ordinary the practice is. Other school districts around the country have been adopting the “no such thing as a free lunch” policy. The Willingboro New Jersey school district sent a letter home at the start of this school year warning that “humanitarian meals” would no longer be served to children.
It got downright Dickensian inside the Dickinson, Texas, school last November when a 12-year-old was told to throw out his breakfast because he was short 30 cents.
And a similar zero-tolerance initiative in Attleboro, Massachusetts last year left two dozen middle schoolers crying as they were told to toss their lunch trays out. Students had to rely on the kindness of classmates, some of whom offered to share their lunches. At least this school had the good sense to apologize. The superintendent immediately condemned the practice, with a statement so obvious, that it needs to be said at all is an embarrassment. “Children need to eat,” she said.
Jason Olsen, the District spokesman for Salt Lake City schools might do well to remember that most basic of biological facts.
Olsen first offered the kind of non-apology we come to expect when one group claims offense at the actions of another. “If students were humiliated and upset, that’s very unfortunate and not what we wanted to happen.”
After further reflection, and no doubt pressure from parents, Olsen issued a more contrite statement on Facebook. “We understand the feelings of upset parents and students who say this was an embarrassing and humiliating situation. We again apologize and commit to working with parents in rectifying this situation and to ensuring students are never treated in this manner again.”
At the time of this writing, over 800 irate comments follow the post. The milder ones share a similar theme: “What kind of monster…” and “Shame. On. You.”
Hopefully the national shame the Salt Lake City School District is feeling puts its leadership in a better position to understand how children feel when their most basic needs go unmet, let alone how they are humiliated over a few bucks.
School leaders of an institution that boasts the motto, “Safe, Responsible & Respectful” were none of the above.