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Lunches seized from kids in debt at Salt Lake City elementary

Ohanian Comment: What a message to children: We would rather throw this food away than see you get to eat it!

My Dad and School Lunches

An 18" x 4" board with the stenciled numbers 58-1395.400-500 sits on my desk. It's from a packing case holding a surplus steel pre-fab Butler Building, purchased as Army surplus. My dad bought two of these buildings on June 14, 1946, for $4,536.28. I can verify the date and the cost because Dad wrote down every penny he spent in a day book. That was quite a hunk of change in 1946, and Dad mortgaged his home to do it.

Dad did this because long before federal hot lunch programs were even a dream, he was upset to learn about children coming to school carrying only a raw potato for lunch. When Dad read that people were buying Army surplus disassembled portable barracks used in the Pacific Islands during World War II and turning them into utility buildings, cabins, and garages, he thought, "Why not a cafeteria?" The school board agreed but technicalities required that they put the deal out to bid, too long a process to allow snapping up a bargain.

So Dad mortgaged his home, drove to San Francisco, and bought the buildings. Thirty-two crates and bundles bound by steel tape then sat in our front yard while the school board followed the letter of the law and put the cafeteria out to bid. Once the legalities were satisfied, the school district paid Dad's loan at the bank and Dad enlisted local townspeople to help pour a cement slab and assemble the buildings. The resulting structure most definitely wasn't pretty, but it was functional: it fed hungry kids.

One of my first childhood memories is Dad reassuring me not to be scared by phone calls from officials at the State Department of Education threatening to put him in jail for "persistently violating school building code." Dad told them that children were more important than bureaucrats. The State sent architects and functionaries with rule books. Over and over the Standardistos repeated, "You can't do this. You can't do this." As president of the school board, my father received official notification of all the codes whose requirements the ex-barracks failed to meet. He also received the threats of jail. Meanwhile, kids continued to eat hot lunch in their new cafeteria. Teachers passed out lunch tickets to everybody. None of the kids knew who paid and who didn't. All we knew is that everybody got lunch.

When I started school, I ate lunch in that non-code cafeteria, as children continued to do for decades. When the town built a new school for middle graders, we were bused across town for lunch. The first year the schoolboard sent a woman known for her performance at church suppers to take a course on cooking for large numbers. People in the town are still trying to find the right touch to recreate the magic of the beans and tamales we all grew up on--whether our parents could pay or not.

I would point out that my dad wasn't a firebrand liberal. He was a Republican who cared about kids.

Reader Comment: C'mon trib, WHO was it that made this stupid decision? Name them, or do WE have to guess and lay the blame on the entire department?

Reader Comment: ALL children should be allowed to eat for their ENTIRE CHILDHOOD under ANY circumstances. Are you kidding me? These are CHILDREN!

By Lisa Schencker

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts --a move that shocked and angered parents.

"It was pretty traumatic and humiliating," said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South.

Lukes said as far as she knew, she was all paid up. "I think it’s despicable," she said. "These are young children that shouldn’t be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up."

Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City District spokesman, said the district's child-nutrition department became aware that Uintah had a large number of students who owed money for lunches.

As a result, the child-nutrition manager visited the school and decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue, he said.

But cafeteria workers weren't able to see which children owed money until they had already received lunches, Olsen explained.

The workers then took those lunches from the students and threw them away, he said, because once food is served to one student it can't be served to another.

Children whose lunches were taken were given milk and fruit instead.

Olsen said school officials told the district that their staffers typically tell students about any balances as they go through the lunch line and send home notifications to parents each week.

The district attempted to contact parents with balances via phone Monday and Tuesday, Olsen said, but weren’t able to reach them all before the child-nutrition manager decided to take away the students’ lunches.

"Something's not working, and that’s what the school and child-nutrition department are going to work on together," Olsen said of the notifications.

He said there's no plan to use the same tactic at other district schools.

"This can be easily prevented," Olsen said. "We need to make sure proper notification goes out to the parents and they have time to put money in the accounts."

But Olsen said he would not describe the tactic as a mistake.

"If students were humiliated and upset," Olsen said, "that's very unfortunate and not what we wanted to happen."

However, after further investigation, Olsen released an updated statement that was also posted to the district’s Facebook page. It said: "This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner. We apologize."

The post adds: "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."

Olsen said it's standard in the district to give kids fruit and milk in lieu of lunch if they don't have the money to pay for lunch.

He said it's unclear how Uintah had been handling such situations before this week. Attempts to reach Uintah’s principal were unsuccessful.

Olsen said the district encourages parents to use its electronic system to pay for lunches and set up email notifications. He said the software for the system is new this year, though it’s not much different than the old one.

Lukes said she never received a notification that her daughter would have her lunch taken.

She said it was a difficult day for her daughter and other kids. She said her daughter told her one of the cafeteria workers cried at the sight. And her daughter's best friend was so upset that she went home Tuesday night and made lunches for all the students who had theirs taken, she said.

"You would think in a public school system your child wouldn't be turned away from lunch," Lukes said, "especially when people usually settle their balances."

— Lisa Schencker
Salt Lake Tribune





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