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School lunches being thrown away leads to threats, officials say

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 6:25 p.m. MST

The Uintah Elementary School cafeteria manager and her supervisor have been placed on paid leave after dozens of students had their lunch taken away and were told they didn't have money to pay for their lunch. They were given fruit and milk instead. (Steve Landeen, Deseret News) The Uintah Elementary School cafeteria manager and her supervisor have been placed on paid leave after dozens of students had their lunch taken away and were told they didn't have money to pay for their lunch. They were given fruit and milk instead. (Steve Landeen, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Uintah Elementary School employees have fielded threats since word surfaced last week that dozens of students had their lunches confiscated and thrown away because of insufficient funds in their accounts, Salt Lake City police and school district officials confirmed Monday.

Salt Lake City police detective Cody Lougy said in one expletive-filled message, an unidentified man suggested the school was messing with the wrong person.

The threats drew officers to the school Friday to investigate and create a report, Lougy said.

It was unclear how many additional threats the school received.

Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen also confirmed the threats, but he declined to comment further on them or on the ongoing investigation into what took place with the confiscated lunches.

Meanwhile, a mother came forward Monday and said her student had a lunch taken away and trashed at Highland High School.

“My son came to me last week and said, ‘I’m out of money. They took my lunch away,’” Nancy Meidell said of her 15-year-old son, a sophomore at Highland.

Though district officials have maintained schools notify parents when there are account troubles, Meidell said her first notification was when her son came home and told her what took place at the school.

“The sad thing is the kids think this is the normal process: You don’t have money, you don’t eat lunch, they throw it away in front of you,” Meidell said. “They humiliate you in front of your classmates.”

Olsen did say part of the investigation was looking at how frequently lunches were being taken away and thrown away, and where it was happening.

As the district dissects its protocols and workers’ actions, Meidell said it should look at better communication practices.

“It’s $2,” she said. “Nobody wants to be humiliated over $2.”

School lunch workers everywhere may be finding themselves in more of a pickle than they used to be.

Federal rules enacted during the last school year changed when students would meet the cashier in the lunch line.

“You used to be able to go through the line, first pay for it and then get your food,” said Ben Horsley, a spokesman for Granite School District. “Because of those restrictions, we now have to double-check to ensure that the kids are getting the proper amount of nutrition on their plate — at least that they’re taking those items.”

Rules also bar food from being re-served, Horsley said, so if a meal were to be taken from a student, it would have to be discarded.

Horsley said to his recollection, no student in the Granite School District has had a lunch taken away in line, and there were only about 30 students with a $35 or more deficit out of 67,000 children.

Still, Horsley said the district’s school lunch program is $41,000 underwater since the beginning of the school year.

“Frankly, that is the cost of doing business, and that’s kind of built into the price of lunch,” he said. “That’s regretful, but at the same time, we’re a taxpayer entity. We’re not making a profit here, and we certainly can’t handle a deficit either.”

The district’s own protocols actually call for several notifications before school workers can ever contemplate denying a school lunch, including sending three letters to a student’s home.

“It’s a challenge,” Horsley said. “Where does the line get drawn? What type of deficit do you run into before you have to stop a kid from getting into the lunch line?”

He said it’s important for parents to also do their part.

“I think this obviously does require some parental responsibility,” Horsley said. “I think there is some responsibility to ensure both parties are communicating with each other.”

Email: aadams@deseretnews.com

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