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Lawmakers visit school where lunches were tossed for kids without funds

Legislator calls for employee to be fired for humiliating students

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 6:25 p.m. MST

Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City School District spokesman, talks with State Sens. Todd Weiler, center, and Jim Dabakis, right, outside of Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. Students who had outstanding balances on their accounts had their lunches seized there on Tuesday.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah senators ate lunch at a Salt Lake elementary school Thursday to make it clear they believe no child in Utah should go hungry.

The visit came after an incident Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, where fifth-grader Sophia Isom was met by a district nutrition manager during lunch who was monitoring students' school lunch accounts. The manager took her school lunch and threw it away.

"So 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.’”

She was one of the 30 to 40 students at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South, whose school lunches were taken away and thrown into the garbage because their parents didn't have enough money in their accounts.

"We were all blind-sided," said Erica Lukes, Sophia’s parent, who said her account was paid.

Some students and staff members were in tears during lunch Tuesday. The district apologized Wednesday.

"It was wrong. It should not have happened, and we apologize that it did," Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said Thursday.

Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, and Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, ate lunch with Uintah Elementary students Thursday.

"We think that children should be as well-fed as legislators," Weiler said before eating his lunch of ravioli, meatballs, fruit, veggies and milk.

Dabakis, who did not eat his vegetables but did pay for Weiler's $3 lunch, said the lunch provided an opportunity for the legislators to look at solutions for feeding children in Utah's schools.

Dabakis promised that he and Weiler will meet with Senate leadership about potential legislation.

Weiler said whoever is found to be responsible for the incident through due process should be fired, because that person "used (their) power to humiliate and embarrass children."

According to Olsen, a district employee came to the school Monday to look into the school's claim of unpaid account balances, which Olsen said involved between 50 and 70 of the school's 550 students. School officials tried to call parents on Monday and Tuesday, according to Olsen. But several parents said they were not notified.

"Even if they did try to send the word out, you still don't do that to a child," Lukes said. "You don't take a lunch out of their hands."

District policy mandates that schools work with parents on unpaid balances, which would include giving them "as much notice as possible," Olsen said. "There shouldn't have been food taken away."

The district's Auxiliary Services director is working to determine exactly who took matters into their own hands on Tuesday.

Because of food handler concerns, the confiscated lunches ended up in the trash. When asked how the students got all the way through the line before finding out about their balance, Olsen said that the lunches are federally reimbursed, so the cashier checks the meal for nutrition standards before the transaction.

Solutions may include having someone inform students of their lunch balance before they get their food, Olsen said, so future food is not thrown away.

Parents who do not pay their balances harm the school lunch program, according to Kim Loveland, the coordinator of child nutrition programs at the State Office of Education.

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