The fifth grade girl grabbed a big metal spoon and started dishing green beans to her classmates.
It was her assignment for the week at Tolman Elementary in Bountiful. She was supposed to report to the lunch room every day for her 30-minute shift, sometimes to serve food, other times to wipe down tables. And, at the end, she’d get a treat for the work.
She explained how it worked to her dad about a week after school started last month and after she had started the little job. When she finished her “service” — that’s what the school called it — she could head back to her classroom a little late, she told him, to catch up on the lesson.
Matt Brice listened as his 10-year-old explained but then immediately called the principal. He was furious.
“I take my kid to school to learn, not to work in the lunch room,” the dad said. “I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t learn work ethic, but that’s a separate thing. And parents were never told about this.”
His daughter didn’t serve green beans, or anything else, again.
He’s not the only parent in Davis School District with concerns. But, according to state and federal law, it’s legal for students to dish food to their peers, and it is rather common.
With many schools underfunded — and Utah consistently ranking last in per pupil spending — it’s the only option for some that can’t afford enough staff or can’t hire workers at the low pay set to fill the open spots ($10.68 an hour for a substitute cook in Davis).
“We felt like not only would it be a help, but it would give the kids the ability to be part of the team,” said Tolman Principal Vickie Jessen.
In response to Brice’s call, Jessen said she decided to stop having students work in the lunch room. Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said Tolman didn’t have the kids work solely to fill staff shortages but instead wanted to give them “an opportunity to have fun” and a chance to learn life skills.
“These are students who have behaved well in class, are model students and are caught up in their work,” he added. “It doesn’t take away from them learning in the classroom.”
A sign outside the school posted a few days after the changes said, “Cooks needed.” Williams said it was unrelated to the complaint from Brice and the decision to take kids out of the shifts.
Other schools in the district will continue to have students serve their peers in the lunch lines — something that has happened throughout Utah for decades. At least a quarter of the elementary schools in Davis County have students working in the lunch room, Williams note. And so do most of the junior high and high schools, said Jessen. And plenty of other schools in the state do, too.
One of the bigger problems Brice had, though, was that he was never asked if it was OK for his daughter to serve food.
He jokes that he signs at least 10 disclosure forms a week. He never got one for the lunch room service. His daughter said the students were supposed to volunteer for the shifts; her teacher, though, just signed up everyone.
Brice views that as a mild form of forced labor.
“If Utah schools are underfunded, the gap needs to be filled by legislative action — not fifth graders stepping up to the plate,” he said. “I don’t think the solution is employing kids. At that rate, you could just cut a janitor from the budget and have the kids clean the toilets.”
According to federal law, students cannot be forced to work as payment for food. And lunch room service should be a volunteer activity, according to Kim Loveland, coordinator of school nutrition programs for the state, something agreed to by a student’s parents. Beyond that, individual districts can decide what to do.
Brice contends that he doesn’t believe 10-year-old kids can really volunteer for things and will just do what their teachers say. Additionally, requiring students to serve lunch, he suggested, could be a problem for those with anxiety or an illness.
What about food handling permits? The district has brought in the health department to evaluate.
Typically, to serve food, an individual has to take a test from the county and receive a permit. Bob Ballew, spokesman for Davis County Health Department, said because students don’t prepare the food, that requirement is waived.
“They’re doing one task, like handing out a roll or dishing potatoes,” he said. “They wash up and they wear gloves, and they’re under the supervision of cafeteria staff.”
The department performs health checks twice a year at every school in the district. “We’re aware of what the practices are,” Ballew added.
The school district is evaluating other changes but will now require all parents to sign a form to give permission for a student to work in the lunch room.
“We really don’t have a policy,” said John Robison, president of the Davis School District board of education. “It’s just been done for a long time.”
The district considers lunch room work to be a service — and service is something it encourages all students to do. Other kids help younger students find their way around school or work on projects together.
Jessen, the principal at Tolman, said: “This year our theme is team — everybody helps out together. In our community, having kids serve lunch just wasn’t a big deal until now.”