Chaney Zinn knew something was amiss when her first-grader came home sobbing over what happened during school lunch. On Tuesday, just as her son and his class were sitting down to eat at Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City, staff started confiscating trays of warm food from students throughout the lunchroom, tossing them in the trash.
The reason for the tearful food fight was that a large number of kids hadn't paid their tabs and the administration ordered a crackdown—a growing problem across the country for students who don't qualify for reduced or free lunch programs but whose parents can't afford to pay up.
“At first it took me a minute to understand what he was even talking about because it just seemed so crazy,” Zinn tells TakePart. “Even the lunch ladies were upset and crying because they didn’t want to take the food away from the kids.”
When word of what was happening spread through the school, Zinn said her son’s teacher raced to the cafeteria and paid for lunch for six of her students with her own money.
But not every child was so lucky. Nearly 40 students had their lunches removed and thrown away in full view of other students and were given a piece of fruit and milk instead, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The school district says its child nutrition manager was sent to the school on Monday to investigate the large number of students who had zero or negative balances.
Calls were made to delinquent parents, but by Tuesday, students with negative balances had their hot lunches thrown away.
“But the kids were already sitting down,” says Zinn. “They didn’t stop them when they went through the line and punched in their number that deducts the money from their online account. They let them all go through [the line] and sit down. I think it’s bullying. It’s horrifying what they did to those poor kids.”
Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City School District spokesman, and school principal Chelsea Malouf didn't respond to requests for interview. A statement was posted on the district’s Facebook page, and on Thursday morning—two days after the lunches were seized—Malouf sent an email to parents saying it was unfortunate and that they were “confident this situation will not be repeated.”
Uintah Elementary School is in an affluent community. According to data collected by the state, just over 10 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Looking at the Salt Lake City School District as a whole, that number soars to nearly 60 percent. Why this elementary school was singled out over unpaid lunch debt is unclear.
At the start of the 2012–2013 school year, the district raised the price of elementary school lunches by 65 cents to $2, although it could have raised the price incrementally over several years instead.
Part of the problem is that school meals have become healthier, including more fruits and vegetables, less meats and grains. The change come at a price. The new nutrition standards mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in July 2012.
“Members regularly tell us they’re encountering increased numbers of unpaid meal charges. When that happens, schools get stuck with the deficit,” says Diane Pratt-Heavener, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.
“We are seeing a rise in the number of students who are not eligible for free and reduced price lunches and aren’t able to pay for their meals,” says Pratt-Heavener.
School districts from Washington to Wisconsin have been struggling. This past fall, Willingboro Township Public Schools in New Jersey sent a letter to families, threatening to dump students’ lunches in the trash if they were delinquent in payments. School food advocate Dana Woldow says it’s one of the strictest policies in the nation.
“No money, no lunch, not even for five-year olds. Period,” says Woldow.
In the case of Uintah Elementary, she says the consequences should be for the parent or guardian of the child.
“Not for a seven-year old. Try withholding the quarterly report card until a parent comes in to clear debt or fill out a meal application. For older students, try withholding student ID card or locker, or not letting them attend school dances until things are resolved,” Woldow says. “But don’t snatch food away from children in front of their friends.”