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Idaho lunch lady gets fired for giving hungry child with no money a free meal
Dalene Bowden, a food service worker at Irving Middle School, said she offered to pay for the meal but supervisor rejected the offer. - photo by Daniel Lombardi
School food service workers come and go, often unnoticed by the students they serve and the community-at-large. But the Idaho State Journal reported that a petition is circulating in Pocatello, Idaho, to rehire a middle school lunch lady who was fired for giving a free meal to 12-year-old girl who didn't have any money but said she was hungry.

Dalene Bowden, a food service worker at Irving Middle School, received a letter of dismissal last week stating she was fired for theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food. The letter was signed by District 25 Director of Human Resources Susan Petit.

Bowden says she tried to pay for the $1.70 lunch but was rejected by her supervisor. I broke the rules, but I offered to pay for the meal and I dont think I deserved to lose my job over it, she said.

The Journal wasn't able to get a comment from school administrators. The district is required under federal guidelines to provide lunches to children in low-income homes at a reduced cost or for free. The Journal reported that District 25 participates in a program that sends food home with students in need every weekend.

Bowden says she plans to seek legal counsel regarding the termination letter accusing her of theft.

Two years ago nearly the opposite happened in Salt Lake City. Unita Elementary School's cafeteria manager and her supervisor were placed on leave for taking away lunches from students who owed money and throwing the food away.

One mother, Erica Lukes, claimed her daughter's lunch was thrown away even though she said the account was paid. The kids, teachers and parents were upset. "We had teachers that were digging into their own pocketbooks to pay for lunches," she said.

A few weeks later the school reinstated the two cafeteria workers and enacted a new policy that ensures students will receive full lunches regardless of their account balances and that discussions about payments should only involve parents and not students.

Kathryn Wilson, the Department of Agriculture's deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, told the Deseret News this year that school lunches were a good deal for families. "It's very cost-effective to participate in school meals because they're high-quality and balanced meals offered for a low price, even if you pay full price."

But, around the country, schools are grappling with the cost of covering their share of the federally subsidized school lunch program. Seventy percent of programs surveyed by the government are struggling financially, and many are implementing staffing cuts, canceling equipment purchases, or limiting menu variety.

According to the USDA, $12.7 billion was spent across the country on the school lunch program last year, and costs were expected to rise in 2015.