Hunger makes it difficult to do most things. Physical activities require energy, mental activities require focus, hell, even social activities require not being crabby and snapping at people, the way many of us do while hungry. That’s why it’s critical that kids get a good, filling lunch during school. Otherwise they can’t be expected to finish the day with their best performance.
On top of all that, being hungry is physically and emotionally painful, and that’s why one Pennsylvania cafeteria worker decided to quit her job when her employers expected her to stand in front of a hungry first-grader and throw his lunch away because his lunch account had run out.
Throwing a whole tray of plated food away is horribly wasteful. Back in the day people might have said, “There are hungry kids in the world who would be happy to get that food!” but according to the Washington Post, cafeteria worker Stacy Kolitska did not have to think about hungry kids in the world, because there was one standing immediately in front of her.
Kolitska was the cafeteria worker who ran the register at the elementary school where she worked. This year, she says the school implemented a new policy where kids whose parents owed more than $25 were not to be given hot meals. Kids sixth grade and under would in that situation be given a sandwich made of two slices of bread and one slice of American cheese, as well as fruit and milk, but the hot meal would be thrown away, right there in front of the kid and everyone. (The kid’s parents would still be billed the $2.05 price for the thrown-away meal.) Kids older than sixth grade would not get food at all, according to Kolitska.
I don’t know what they were paying Kolitska, but it was not enough if her job duties were meant to include, “Waste food and make children cry.” That’s a rough thing to ask anybody to do.
Kolitska finally quit her job because she couldn’t deal with being the axman of the school’s new policy. She says she is a Christian, and she thought it was immoral to throw away good food.
“God is love, and we should love one another and be kind,” Koltiska said. “There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me this is just wrong.”
School officials say this new plan was intended to prevent parents from running huge deficits on their kids’ lunch plans. It does not target kids who get free lunches, just those whose parents haven’t paid the bills. The accounts could be delinquent for any number of reasons–parental negligence, forgetfulness, wilful desire to avoid paying, temporary inability to pay, or long-term poverty. One school board member told the Washington Post: “the school district negotiated payment plans for many families but acknowledged that some of those children with negative balances likely were poor students whose parents could not afford to pay.”
Unpaid lunch bills are a big problem for the school district.
The district superintendent said that before the policy there were more than 300 families in the district that owed a total of somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000. Since the policy was implemented, he says there are only around 70 families, and the debt is more like $20,000. That is a lot of savings for a policy that was reportedly instituted at the beginning of this school year.
Logically it makes sense, but while the school is trying to recoup its money from the parents, they’re punishing the kids. A first-grader doesn’t have any power over the situation. They just know that adults around them are throwing good food away and making them stay hungry and embarrassing them in front of their friends. That’s tough on the kids, and it’s tough on the school employees being ordered to do that.
This is not the first time a cafeteria worker has run into conflict with school administrators over exactly this issue. Making the policy is one thing, but actually having to be the person taking food away from a kid is another thing entirely. (In Game of Thrones terms, the person ordering the sentence is not the one swinging the axe.)
“They’re suits at a board meeting,” Kolitska said of the administrators who created the new policy but would not be the ones to enforce it. “They are not the ones facing a child and looking them in the eye and taking their food away.”
Kolitska says she grew up poor and was hungry in school herself, and she relied on food stamps and free lunches as a child and remembers how embarrassed she was and afraid the other kids would know. She says that since quitting her job she’s received letters of support from everyone from nuns to prison inmates commending her. She seems secure in her decision. Hopefully she’ll find another job soon.