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After dumped lunches, SLC schools will serve only full meals

Published February 8, 2014 9:15 am

Education • After the outrage, school district says it will keep kids out of debt disputes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

All children who want to buy lunch in Salt Lake City district schools will now receive full meals — even if they don't have enough money in their accounts, according to new procedures released Friday.

No more partial meals will be served, according to new instructions distributed to school kitchen managers Thursday. Parents with negative account balances will be notified every day, and employees will not be allowed to ask kids for payments or ask children to remind their parents.

The new procedures follow more than a week of criticism directed at the district after The Salt Lake Tribune first reported that as many as 40 Uintah Elementary students had their lunches publicly taken away and trashed because they were behind on their meal payments. The kids were given partial meals of milk and fruit instead.

The story became national news, drawing outrage, threats and donation offers from across the country.

The district has since apologized and placed two employees — the school's cafeteria manager and her supervisor at the district — on paid administrative leave, pending an ongoing investigation. District leaders have said they were not put on leave for disciplinary reasons.

Jason Olsen, district spokesman, said Friday afternoon the procedures were developed to ensure what happened at Uintah never happens again in the district.

"We reviewed the existing communication procedures and said these need to be more clear, more concise so people can understand them," Olsen said. "We want to make sure everyone in our district understands that students will receive a full meal regardless of any lunch balance."

Erica Lukes, a Uintah parent whose daughter had her lunch taken last week, called the new procedures a step forward. She said she's happy to hear kids will get full meals.

"That's good not just for our children but for everyone," Lukes said. "Any kind of circumstance where you're pointing out a child's parents haven't paid a bill or met their responsibility or can't, I think that's detrimental to a child's well-being."

She added, however, that she and other parents still want the district to bring their cafeteria manager back from leave.

According to the new procedures, each kitchen manager will now be expected to run a daily negative balance report. It will be kept in the kitchen office and given to the principal. Kitchen managers are asked to "keep the school principal informed and ask for their assistance when a student account is getting out of hand."

The procedures also instruct the managers to coordinate with principals on how to effectively notify parents with low or negative account balances. Parents with prepaid amounts must be notified when their balance drops to $10, and every day when they have negative balances.

The changes also clarify that no district employees may ask students for meal payments or ask them to remind their parents. Instead, communication about past-due accounts should be only with parents.

Olsen said the district also worked with its electronic payment system provider this week, and the system will now send out automatic emails to participating parents when their balances drop below $10. On top of that, the district will also send out weekly reminders to parents whose balances drop below $10, and will contact parents with negative balances by phone every day.

Many of the parents whose children had their lunches taken have said they didn't realize their balances were negative. The district's previous electronic payment system sent automatic notifications to parents when their balances got low, and many parents have said they didn't know the district had a new system.

Uintah parent Vanessa May, whose daughter's lunch was taken last week, said Friday she's happy to hear the district will strengthen its notification procedures.

"It's a great way to make sure this doesn't happen again because sadly a lot of us do get caught up in the hype of our day-to-day," May said, "and it will definitely help keep lunch balances out of the negative."

She said, however, the new procedures still seem a bit vague.

It's a complaint of board member Michael Clara as well. The changes still leave certain procedures, such as how to handle students whose accounts are "out of hand" up to individual school leaders.

"Where they leave it open-ended again and leave it nebulous, that's what got them in trouble," Clara said Friday. "That's the thing that kind of still gives me pause."

Olsen said "out of hand" refers to parents whom the district has been unable to contact or work with on negative balances.

Clara commended parents Friday for pushing the district to make changes.

"What's disappointing is in my experience, the administrators would never have come to these conclusions on their own," Clara said. "It was because of the pressure and determination of the parents to see this through."

Board vice president Heather Bennett, however, said district leaders took action as soon as they realized what was happening. "We can only fix what we know about," Bennett said.

"Our district and our board have always been in support of doing everything we can to minimize the impact of child hunger on learning, and I, at least, as a board member, was not aware this practice of giving out partial meals was as common as it was."

The Salt Lake district isn't the only one making changes after the outcry over the incident last week.

Canyons School District had, like some other districts, been giving alternative meals to kids behind in their payments. Canyons issued its own memo Friday, saying it will no longer serve alternative meals, instead giving a full lunch to every child who wants one regardless of negative balances.

"As a result of the event that took place in another district last week, Nutrition Services has updated its practice for students with negative balances in their meals account," the Canyons memo states.

The Salt Lake incident also inspired at least one man, in Texas, to donate hundreds of dollars to his local school to zero out all the students' lunch accounts there, according to news reports.

Olsen has said the Salt Lake district is still investigating its incident and how widespread the practice of publicly seizing kids' lunches had been throughout the district.

The Salt Lake district also released a report at its regular board meeting Tuesday night explaining what led to the incident and changes that would follow. Some parents, however, have criticized that report as still leaving questions unanswered, including who made the decision to yank lunches in the first place.

Many parents have said the school's cafeteria manager is not to blame.