Why are students and cafeteria workers being punished for minimal lunch debt?
A cafeteria worker in New Hampshire was fired recently for allowing a student to have a school lunch even though he didn’t have money in his account for it. To add insult to injury, her employer also accused her of stealing the $8 lunch tab after letting her go.
Bonnie Kimball, who worked for Mascoma Valley Regional High School as a lunchroom employee for five years, says she thought she was doing the right thing when she let the student have a lunch regardless of his inability to pay. She says she knows the students at the high school as well as their financial circumstances when they come through the lunch line.
When the student in question added a few a la carte lunch items onto his tray, Kimball quietly told him he needed to have his mom put some money in his account. A manager for Kimball’s employer, Cafe Services, was at the high school observing lunchroom operations for the day.
The following day, the student came in and paid his lunch bill. Kimball says she was called into the office by two managers later that day and fired over the outstanding $8 tab, regardless of the fact that it had been paid.
“I was doing what I was told to do,” Kimball tells UnionLeader.com. She claims that weeks before the incident, her direct manager told her to allow kids to take the food they need while discreetly telling them they need to add money to their account if it was empty. “We weren’t supposed to pull trays,” she says.
According to Cookie Hebert, the chairman of the school board, Cafe Services is responsible for making sure all of the school district’s policies are enacted — including the policy that students can still receive a lunch even if they can’t pay for it. However, that policy apparently doesn’t extend to “a la carte items” — only the lunch of the day.
But still, to fire someone for allowing a kid to eat what they want to eat? Over $8? Come on. Kimball said the two other employees in the Mascoma lunchroom quit in protest of her treatment. Hebert said that while the staff did leave, it did not have a negative impact at the school.
Many parents in the school district are unhappy with Kimball’s firing and want to see her get her job back. “These guys really took care of our kids. They put our kids first and their focus was really our kids,” Christina Moodie, whose son attends the high school, tells Valley News. “I know Bonnie went above and beyond for the kids.”
The school district has offered no comment on Kimball losing her job, other than stating Cafe Services is a separate entity, which means Kimball wasn’t a school district employee. According to a letter Valley News obtained, dated two weeks after the March 29 incident, Cafe Services plans to stick to their guns:
“On March 28, a District manager was on-site and witnessed a student coming through the line with multiple food items that you did not charge him for,” the letter states. “This is a strict violation of our Cash Handling Procedures, the Schools Charge Policy and Federal Regulation governing free meals.”
A GoFundMe was set up to help Kimball with any legal or living expenses she may need help with in the coming weeks and months.
Many school districts and food service providers engage in different varieties of lunch shaming. A Rhode Island school district recently came under fire for serving jelly sandwiches to students who have outstanding lunch debt. On the flip side, states like New Mexico have outlawed all forms of lunch shaming students who can’t afford it.
Regardless, punishing children for their parents being unable to fill their lunch money accounts on time (or at all) is a horrible practice. Firing a dedicated employee who was simply just following the rules as they were laid out for her — and for demonstrating kindness, above all — is even worse. We can and should do better, on a national level, for our kids.