Dalene Bowden saw a hungry middle school student who didn’t have money to buy a meal. So last week, the Idaho lunch lady handed the 12-year-old a free hot meal, an action that got her fired, the Idaho State Journal reported.
“I know I screwed up, but what are you supposed to do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry and they don’t have any money?” Bowden told the newspaper.
The story gained national attention and sparked widespread criticism. On Wednesday, the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District said in a news release that it had offered Bowden her job back and emphasized “the highly regulated and controlled” nature of federal food assistance programs in schools.
“During this holiday season, emotions and feelings abound in the spirit of giving and looking after the needs of others,” reads the release, which was posted online by KPVI. “The District works daily to help children who are hungry, who need healthcare, who are homeless and who are neglected and/or abused. In the spirit of the holidays, Superintendent [Doug] Howell advises that the District has been in communication with Ms. Bowden extending an opportunity for her to return to employment with the District.”
The district added that it doesn’t terminate employees for a “singular event of this nature.” But Bowden, who has been a food-service worker for three years, told the Journal that she’s never been punished on the job, except for one verbal warning after she gave a free cookie to a student.
Bowden was put on leave after giving the 12-year-old a free meal at Irving Middle School, despite offering to pay the $1.70 cost, she said; she then received a letter from the district’s director of human services informing her she had been fired.
“The reason for your termination is due to your theft — stealing school district or another’s property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food,” reads the letter, a copy of which Bowden posted to Facebook.
“My heart hurts,” she told KPVI. “I truly love my job, and I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again.”
The story went viral and more than 80,000 people signed a petition in support of Bowden.
School district spokesperson Shelley Allen told the Idaho State Journal that parents are notified when their child’s unpaid cafeteria balance reaches $11 — and that after that point, students are still offered milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. From the newspaper:
Ironically, the girl Bowden gave the free lunch to was within her $11 limit, but didn’t know that and was too afraid and embarrassed to ask about her account balance.
“That’s probably why she came to me. The kids love me and I love them too, the whole thing hurts my heart,” Bowden said.
More than half of the school district’s student population — about 6,500 students — participate in the Federal Food Service Program, according to the district. Schools also receive and distribute about 1,000 food packs from a local food bank each month; after the holiday break, staff will be trained “on the various ways to get help for hungry children” and on how to adhere to the federal program guidelines, the district release said.
On Wednesday night, Bowden said she hadn’t decided yet whether to return to her job.
“I have to think about it,” she told the Journal. “I’m afraid that they would just make my life miserable and then try to set me up, or get rid of me some other way.”