Cafeteria worker tosses child's lunch when he's 26 cents short

KENT, Wash. -- A father is fuming after his son told him a cafeteria worker at Mill Creek Middle School took back a lunch when the boy didn't have enough to pay for it, then threw it in the garbage.

Jimmie Keys said his son was humiliated when it happened two days in row last week in front of other students.

"My first instinct was to get a huge jar of pennies, and get it ready," Keys said. "I was going to take it down to the school and throw it on 'em."

Instead, he called the Problem Solvers and went to school district headquarters to speak with administrators about the incident.

"He gets up to the front and they say there's not enough in his account, so they take his food, and in front of him, throw it away," Keys said.

Kent schools serve about 19,000 meals a day in a district with 28,000 students. Lunches cost 40 cents, and many students pay through a meal account, similar in concept to a debit card. Parents can use credit or debit to load money onto the accounts.

Keys' son had just 14 cents remaining on his account when he reached the cashier and had his lunch taken away.

School district spokesperson Chris Loftis said the incident was a terrible mistake that should not have happened.

"I just have to say sorry to this student, sorry to the parents," he said. "We made a mistake, we need to fix it, we're sorry."

Loftis confirmed the father's account of what happened, and acknowledged the cafeteria worker made more than one mistake. The school is required to give any student who cannot pay a free substitute food item like yogurt or cereal. That did not happen.

Parents are also supposed to receive notification when a meal account is short or about to be. Keys says he never received that notification as he has been for the past two years.

The district says the cafeteria worker did not intend to be mean, and apparently went too far in trying to abide by the district's end-of-school-year effort to encourage parents to pay outstanding meal account debts.

"We forgot the humanity of it," Loftis explained. "We've learned from this. and the kindness of all of our workers is not going to be overwhelmed by the policies and procedures that we're required to follow."

The district will change it's policy to ensure parents are notified when meal accounts are down to one dollar, allowing families more time to add more money to the accounts. In the past notification came when accounts were a dollar in arrears.

Keys said he's glad the district has apologized and plans to take steps to prevent this from happening again to his son or any other student.

But it might take this father of three a little more time to cool off.

"To have it hit so close to home was very disappointing in the least," he said. "Somebody had to stand up for my kid and for everybody's kid."