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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Uintah Elementary School parents Erica Lukes, Lynn Lonardo, Ashley Hoopes and Annie Payne express their concerns over the handling of the Unitah Elementary School lunch situation during a Salt Lake City School Board meeting at the Salt Lake City School District board room n Salt Lake City, Utah Wednesday, March 12, 2014. The board called the meeting to try to answer questions about the issue.
Cafeteria lady speaks, says she had no choice but to toss lunches

She recognizes she did some things wrong, but feels there’s a lot of blame to go around.

First Published Mar 12 2014 10:07 pm • Last Updated Apr 03 2014 05:23 pm

The cafeteria worker who took dozens of kids’ lunches at a Salt Lake City elementary school earlier this year is speaking out for the first time — and she says she’s been punished for merely trying to do what her bosses expected of her.

"Miss Shirley" as she’s known to kids at Uintah Elementary told The Salt Lake Tribune she trashed the lunches of kids with negative account balances, giving them milk and fruit instead because her boss was watching her that day. The Tribune agreed not to use Shirley’s last name because of threats that she said have been made against her.

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The incident, at the end of January, made national news, drawing outrage from parents across the country.

"As the kids started coming through, I had no choice," Shirley said. "It was take the tray and give them a fruit and a milk.

"I was just sickened by it," she added. "It upset me so bad."

Shirley’s supervisor, a district-level employee, visited Uintah that day to look into reports of high numbers of kids who were behind in their lunch payments. Shirley said her boss asked her when lunch time came what she was going to do about those kids whose accounts were in arrears.

Shirley said she told her boss she didn’t feel comfortable replacing their lunches with fruit and milk and asked if her supervisor could do it instead. She said her supervisor said no, and then watched as she took kids lunches, threw them away and replaced them with fruit and milk.

Attempts to reach Shirley’s supervisor for comment Wednesday night were unsuccessful. But Shirley said she got the impression that it disturbed her as well. Both women were placed on paid administrative leave during an initial investigation but have since returned to work.

"Child nutrition standard policy was to, by all means, try to collect the money [from parents] so everybody would be saved from embarrassment, but the last resort was to take the trays and give them fruit and milk and on that day, we did that," Shirley said.

Principal Julia Miller at Wasatch Elementary, has said a district food service manager visited her school twice, weeks before the incident at Uintah, and tried to take kids’ lunches. But Miller and her teachers thwarted those attempts.

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Shirley said Wednesday that Uintah’s principal was not to blame for the incident there.

Since the Uintah incident, district leaders have apologized, initiated several investigations and changed procedures, pledging to only serve kids full lunches regardless of their parents’ balances.

District leaders, however, on Wednesday night said it was not the district’s position that kids’ lunches should have been taken out of their hands.

Board members reviewed district policies and procedures during a special meeting Wednesday night at district offices meant to answer questions from concerned Uintah parents.

During that meeting district leaders distributed copies of a memo sent to child nutrition employees in November stating "Our objective is to avoid embarrassing a child by taking away their tray at the point-of-sale."

They also distributed a list of questions and answers, prepared by the district’s human resources department, stating that the child nutrition department held two trainings between November and the date of the Uintah incident in which they again told employees not to take children’s lunches away at the point of sale.

According to that question and answer sheet, the district didn’t previously have a policy on how much time to give parents to pay up before their kids would be given fruit and milk instead of full lunches. Instead, it was up to each school. It goes on to say that Uintah’s policy for this school year was to allow kids to go up to $5 in arrears before being given fruit and milk instead of a full lunches.

During the meeting, board member Rosemary Emery criticized district leaders for placing too much blame for the incident on the school-level employees.

"The bottom line is our program didn’t work. It didn’t function well," Emery said. "Somebody else besides Shirley was more responsible for this issue."

Many have said a new payment system contributed to parents not knowing they were behind on payments.

Board President Kristi Swett, however, said it was never the district’s intention to shift blame onto the school.

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