As many as 40 children at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City had their lunches seized and thrown away on Tuesday because their parents had fallen behind on payments.
"It was pretty traumatic and humiliating," said Erika Lukes, the mother of an 11-year-old whose lunch was taken away. Lukes told the Salt Lake City Tribune that as far as she knew, she was up-to-date with her payments. "I think it's despicable. These are young children that shouldn't be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up."
The large number of students with zero or negative balances at Uintah Elementary prompted the Salt Lake City school district to send a child nutrition manager to the school on Monday to resolve the issue. According to a statement on the district's website, school officials spent Monday calling parents to let them know that their children owed money for lunches. On Tuesday, although calls to parents continued, the district nutrition manager decided to withhold lunches from students who didn't have enough money in their accounts. "Unfortunately, children are served lunch before they get to the computer for payment" and students with a negative balance were forced to hand over their trays and watch as they were thrown away (district policy dictates that once food is served to one student, it cannot be served to another). Instead of Tuesday's meal of pizza and salad, the students whose accounts were in debt were given milk and a piece of fruit.
Fifth-grader Sophia Isom told KSL TV that the nutrition manager was checking each student's account as they went through the lunch line. "She took my lunch away and said, 'Go get a milk,' " Sophia said. "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.'" According to the Salt Lake City school district website, elementary school lunches cost $2.00 per meal and parents are able to make payments towards their children's accounts online.
Salt Lake City's school district apologized to parents and students on Wednesday. "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." Since so many parents were surprised to learn they owed money to the school, the district says they plan to re-evaluate the way parents and students are informed about their account balances as the current practice of notes sent home seems not to be working.
Correction: A previous version of this article used a photo from the wrong Utah school district. The incident occurred at Uintah Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District. (2/3/2014, 1:30 p.m.)