Idaho woman fired for giving free lunch to hungry child

© Suzanne Plunkett
A cafeteria worker at an Idaho middle school was fired for giving lunch to a 12-year-old student who said she was hungry and had no money for food. The worker said she tried to pay for the lunch, but the school rejected her attempt.

Dalene Bowden, a former employee of Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho, said she was first placed on leave last week, then summarily fired, by the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District for the theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions in her duties as a food service worker, according to the Idaho State Journal.

Bowden, a three year worker with the school district, said that the student had told her she had no money for the $1.70 lunch. Bowden then asked her supervisor if she could purchase the meal for the girl. When the offer was denied, Bowden gave out the lunch for free. After being placed on termination leave on December 15, Bowden received a brief letter, signed by District 25 Director of Human Resources Susan Petit, informing her of her firing.

“This is just breaking my heart,” Bowden, a breast cancer survivor, told the Idaho State Journal. “And they couldn’t even bother to put my check in with the letter.”

School district board members are not commenting on the termination.

The school district said that students who go over an $11 charge limit for weekly lunches are given peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk. Parents are notified when a student's account hits the limit.

But the policy comes with what some are calling a harsh, humiliating caveat. Bowden said that if a student exceeds that charge limit, food workers are instructed to take the child's full lunch and dump it in front of the child and her peers.

“I broke the rules, but I offered to pay for the meal and I don’t think I deserved to lose my job over it,” Bowden said.

Bowden is currently raising money to hire a lawyer in an effort to "change the law," she wrote on a fundraising website.

An online petition was started by Raushelle Guzman, a mother of two children in the school district, over the weekend in an attempt to reinstate Bowden. As of midday Wednesday, the petition has nearly 40,000 signatures.

“I think (Bowden) did the right thing and I think we need to make sure that every child that wants lunch can have lunch,” Guzman told the Idaho State Journal. “I think the district’s policy needs to be changed. We do not need to humiliate or demean any child or worker in that situation. Students must be provided with an adequate meal.”

Guzman wrote in the petition that the 12-year-old student in question had actually not exceeded her $11 limit, and had to pay for the lunch anyway. The school's strict policy regarding the limit "could be handled in so many more compassionate ways," Guzman wrote, urging reform of the policy.

Interim school district superintendent Douglas Howell said last week that District 25 has programs that offer free or reduced-price lunches to students from low-income families. On Fridays, District 25 also sends food home with some students for the weekend, a program run by the Idaho Foodbank.

Bowden said in her three years as a cafeteria worker, she only once received a reprimand for her performance on the job, when she gave a student a free cookie.

"I love my job, I really do," she wrote on her fundraising page. "This just breaks my heart, and I was in the wrong, but what do you do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry, and they don’t have any money? I handed her the tray."