December 23, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) Pocatello, ID — A popular lunch lady at a public school was fired last week after providing a free meal to a middle school student who could not afford to pay. The Idaho woman chose to provide the hungry girl with a lunch, valued at $1.70, but when her supervisor saw her do it, she was promptly put on leave and subsequently fired.
Last week, Dalene Bowden of Pocatello, Idaho, felt she could not turn away a twelve-year-old girl at Irving Middle School who came to her complaining she was hungry. According to the Idaho State Journal, school district spokeswoman Shelley Allen for the Pocatello School System, also known as District 25, allows a child to receive up to 11 dollars in free lunch and are provided with an alternate, albeit sparser meal, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Bowden, however, says that once a child exceeds that limit, cafeteria workers are expected to take the child’s tray and throw it away. “If the kids can’t pay, and they’re over their limit, the workers take their tray away and dump it right there in the line,” she said.
The school district insisted that even when students exceed the 11 dollar limit, they are still fed. “They try to do it privately and discreetly,” Allen said. Speaking on Bowden’s case, District 25 Superintendent Douglas Howell said, “We didn’t take a meal away from a child.”
Bowden, a breast cancer survivor, acknowledged that regardless, by giving the student a free lunch, she broke the rules.
“I love my job, I really do,” she said. “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.”
She says she “handed her the food and said, ‘Here, we’ll take care of it in a minute.’”
Bowden’s superviser saw her hand the student the meal and proceeded to report her, rejecting her offer to simply pay the $1.70 for the lunch. “He said I was on permanent leave until he called me. I should not call them he will call me. And they never called me… then I got the letter,” she said.
In that letter, the school’s director of human resources, Susan Petit, said Bowden was dismissed “due to her theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food.”
“This is just breaking my heart,” Bowden said. “And they couldn’t even bother to put my check in with the letter,” though she was told she would be paid within ten days.
Bowden says she has never been written up in her three years of employment at District 25. She claims she received one verbal warning for giving a student a free cookie. In fact, she says the students like her.
“Last year during an assembly, I got a standing ovation from the students when my name and photo came up on the screen,” Bowden said. “I love them, and they all love me, too. That’s probably why the girl came to me when she didn’t have any money.”
Though the school insists it provides for low-income students, including implementing free and reduced lunch efforts and sending home extra food with children in need, Bowden says between 80 and 100 students this year, alone, came to her complaining they were hungry.
Bowden’s case it not the first of its kind. A Colorado cafeteria worker was terminated earlier this year after regularly providing extra food to students. “I had a first grader in front of me, crying, because she doesn’t have enough money for lunch. Yes, I gave her lunch,” the woman said at the time.
Bowden has received broad support from her local community and across the country. Raushelle Guzman, a local parent, said “I think [Bowden] did the right thing and I think we need to make sure that every child that wants lunch can have lunch. 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.”
Though Guzman does not personally know Bowden, she launched a petition calling for Bowden’s reinstatement, which has received widespread attention. It is only a few thousand signatures away from reaching the goal of 50,000.
Though Bowden did admit she broke the rules, she insisted she would do it again.
“I admit it — I screwed up and I gave her lunch,” she said. “She came to me, she said she was hungry and she didn’t have any money. I would do it again in the same situation.”
Update: Amid public outrage, Guzman’s petition, and a statement from Pocatello’s mayor, Dalene Bowden has been reinstated at Irving Middle School.
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