Giving a Free Meal to a Hungry Student Cost This Lunch Lady Her Job

Administrators said giving out a free lunch constituted ‘theft of school district property.’
(Photo: Kathryn Scott Osler/Getty Images)
Dec 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

UPDATE: After an outpouring of public support, the school district offered Bowden her job back on Thursday.

While students gripe about the quality of the squishy fruit and fatty burgers that often make their way to cafeteria plates for school lunches, an imperfect meal is typically preferred to sitting through math and social studies on an empty stomach. So when one student couldn’t afford to pay for a hot meal, a cafeteria worker stepped in.

Dalene Bowden gave a 12-year-old student a free lunch while working the lunch line at Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho, last week. But since the student didn’t qualify for a free meal, Bowden was terminated from her position, the Idaho State Journal reports.

Bowden offered to pay for the student’s lunch, valued at $1.70, but her supervisor refused and put Bowden on unpaid leave. A week later, the cafeteria worker received a notice of termination stating it was “due to…theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving, and serving food.”

“This just breaks my heart, and I was in the wrong, but what do you do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry, and they don’t have any money? I handed her the tray,” Bowden told the Journal.

More than 21 million children from low-income families receive free or reduced-price lunches at public schools across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Children qualify for the program if their family’s income is 185 percent of the federal poverty line, but that means a matter of a few dollars could be the difference between getting a meal or not.

Students at Irving Middle School who don’t qualify for the program are given an $11 credit when they come to school without money for their meal. After a student exceeds that limit, his or her parents are notified that they need to pay their dues. School spokesperson Shelley Allen told the Journal that when students exceed the $11, they’re still given a small meal—such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But Bowden claims that cafeteria workers are told to throw out the child’s hot tray, leaving the student embarrassed and with nothing to eat.

Bowden isn’t the first to offer a kid a free meal and suffer the consequences. In June, cafeteria worker Della Curry was fired from her position at an elementary school in Denver after giving a free lunch to a first grader. According to Curry, the child was crying because she could not afford to pay for lunch. Curry noted that the small meal given to kids without lunch money—in her school, it was typically a cheese sandwich—was not enough to satisfy growing kids and teens.

Nearly 75 percent of educators in public schools regularly noticed that their students came to school hungry, according to a survey from nonprofit organization No Kid Hungry. Trying to learn with rumbling stomachs can negatively impact their academic performance. Teachers reported that these kids were often tired, lacked motivation, and had behavioral problems.

As schools around the nation grapple with how to feed students, schools in Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Paul, Minnesota, with predominantly low-income students, have transitioned toward free lunch for all regardless of individual family incomes.

While Idaho’s lunch program may not be getting an overhaul anytime soon, Bowden’s dismissal has prompted supporters to start a Care2 petition, requesting she be reinstated. The petition had nearly 55,000 signatures at press time.