SALT LAKE CITY —A school district apologized Thursday to outraged parents after about 30 students at a Salt Lake City school had their lunches thrown out because of outstanding balances on their food accounts.
Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said the district is investigating what happened at Uintah (Yoo-IN-tah) Elementary and working to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"This was a mistake. This was handled wrong," Olsen said during a news conference outside the school. "There shouldn't have been food taken away from these students once they went through that line."
Parent Erica Lukes said her 11-year-old daughter came home Tuesday and reported that officials had taken away her deep dish pizza and thrown it out. The action was "humiliating and demoralizing," Erica Lukes said.
"People are upset, obviously, by the way this has been handled because it's really needless and quite mean," she said. "Regardless if it's $2, $5, you don't go about rectifying a situation with a balance by having a child go through that."
Students were given their lunches first and then went to a pay station where their accounts were checked, Olsen said. Students whose lunches were thrown out were given milk and fruit, a standard practice when students don't have lunch money, he said.
The school is located in a middle-class neighborhood, and the district qualifies for federal reimbursement on lunches if the students select certain offerings that are within nutritional guidelines.
Officials started notifying parents on Monday that many children were behind on the payments. Olsen said it appears one district employee decided to take lunches the next day, bu the investigation was ongoing.
District policy requires that parents be given time to respond to such account shortfalls but there is no specific timeline, Olsen said.
Lukes said she called a school cafeteria worker and was told her daughter's account wasn't overdue and a mistake had been made when her meal was taken. Other parents have reported their outstanding balances were as low as $5, Lukes said.
Her daughter reported children were upset and confused and some shared food with each other.
Two Utah lawmakers held a news conference outside the school on Thursday saying they were outraged and wanted to call attention to the policy.
If the district does not take steps to address the problem, they said, they will look at whether state policies need to change.
"I get that the school needs to be paid," said Sen. Todd Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican. "But this was bullying."
Lukes said she is speaking to other parents to see what they can do about the policy.
"I think at the very least," she said, "somebody should lose their lunch privileges."