The cafeteria worker who took dozens of kids' lunches at a Salt Lake City elementary school earlier this year is speaking out for the first time — and she says she's been punished for merely trying to do what her bosses expected of her.
“Miss Shirley” as she's known to kids at Uintah Elementary told The Salt Lake Tribune she trashed the lunches of kids with negative account balances, giving them milk and fruit instead because her boss was watching her that day. The Tribune agreed not to use Shirley's last name because of threats that she said have been made against her.
The incident, at the end of January, made national news, drawing outrage from parents across the country.
“As the kids started coming through, I had no choice,” Shirley said. “It was take the tray and give them a fruit and a milk.
“I was just sickened by it,” she added. “It upset me so bad.”
Shirley's supervisor, a district-level employee, visited Uintah that day to look into reports of high numbers of kids who were behind in their lunch payments. Shirley said her boss asked her when lunch time came what she was going to do about those kids whose accounts were in arrears.
Shirley said she told her boss she didn't feel comfortable replacing their lunches with fruit and milk and asked if her supervisor could do it instead. She said her supervisor said no, and then watched as she took kids lunches, threw them away and replaced them with fruit and milk.
Attempts to reach Shirley's supervisor for comment Wednesday night were unsuccessful. But Shirley said she got the impression that it disturbed her as well. Both women were placed on paid administrative leave during an initial investigation but have since returned to work.
“Child nutrition standard policy was to, by all means, try to collect the money [from parents] so everybody would be saved from embarrassment, but the last resort was to take the trays and give them fruit and milk and on that day, we did that,” Shirley said.
Principal Julia Miller at Wasatch Elementary, has said a district food service manager visited her school twice, weeks before the incident at Uintah, and tried to take kids' lunches. But Miller and her teachers thwarted those attempts.
Shirley said Wednesday that Uintah's principal was not to blame for the incident there.
Since the Uintah incident, district leaders have apologized, initiated several investigations and changed procedures, pledging to only serve kids full lunches regardless of their parents' balances.
District leaders, however, on Wednesday night said it was not the district's position that kids' lunches should have been taken out of their hands.