In a move that shocked and angered parents, almost 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City were left stunned after they picked up their lunches on Tuesday only to helplessly watch as the meals were taken from them and thrown away because of outstanding arrears in their accounts.
The district's child nutrition department became aware that Uintah had a large number of students who owed money for lunches according to Salt Lake City District spokesman Jason Olsen. In addition, the spokesman said that the child-nutrition manager visited the school and decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue as a result.
However, he explained that cafeteria workers weren't in a position to know which children owed money until they had already received lunches. Hence, because once food is served to one student it can't be served to another; the workers took those lunches from the students and threw them away. Instead, milk and fruits were given to those children whose lunches were taken.
School officials told the district that their staffers typically tell students about any balances as they go through the lunch line and send home notifications to parents each week according to Olsen. In addition, Olsen said that on Monday and Tuesday, the district attempted to contact parents with balances via phone. However, not all were reached before the child-nutrition manager decided to take away the students' lunches.
"Something's not working, and that's what the school and child-nutrition department are going to work on together," Olsen said of the notifications.
At other district schools, there's no plan to use the same tactic.
"This can be easily prevented," Olsen said. "We need to make sure proper notification goes out to the parents and they have time to put money in the accounts."
However, Olsen was not in a position to describe the tactic as a mistake.
"If students were humiliated and upset," Olsen said, "that's very unfortunate and not what we wanted to happen."
As Lisa Schencker of The Salt Lake Tribune reports, Olsen released an updated statement that was also posted to the district's Facebook page after further investigations.
"This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner. We apologize," the statement read. "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."
It's standard in the district to give kids fruit and milk in lieu of lunch if they don't have the money to pay for lunch. However, it's unclear to him how Uintah had been handling such situations before this week. Attempts to reach Uintah's principal bore no fruit. Parents are encouraged by the district to make use of its electronic system to pay for lunches and set up email notifications. In addition, Olsen said that though it's not much different than the old one, the software for the system is new this year.