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SALT LAKE CITY — A few dozen students at Uintah Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District went without lunch Tuesday after they were told they did not have enough money in their school accounts.
"We were all blind-sided," said Erica Lukes, a parent who said her account was paid.
When students went through the lunch line with trays in hand, many did not make it past the pay station. The district confirmed 30 to 40 had their trays taken away because they couldn't pay. They were given fruit and a milk instead. The district apologized Wednesday.
Fifth-grader Sophia Isom, Lukes' daughter, was met by a district nutrition manager who was monitoring accounts.
"So she took my lunch away and said, 'Go get a milk,’ ” Sophia said. "I came back and asked, 'What's going on?' Then she handed me an orange. She said, 'You don't have any money in your account so you can't get lunch.’ ”
She said the food was being thrown out. Sophia said the same thing happened to many students, and it was the talk of the lunch period.
"There were lots of tears, and it was pretty upsetting for them," said Lukes.
The district said it started notifying parents about negative account balances Monday. But Sophia's mother says she was not notified, and neither were other parents.
"Even if they did try to send the word out, you still don't do that to a child," she said. "You don't take a lunch out of their hands."
She fears many of the students were embarrassed in front of their peers to be singled out that way.
"I think they were just mad," said Sophia, "instead of embarrassed."
"It probably could have, and should have, been handled in a different manner," said Jason Olsen, Salt Lake City School District spokesman.
He said they will review the notification system. He also said the district should have given the kids a grace period.
"They did take that tray away and gave them fruit and a milk," Olsen said. "We don't ever let kids go without any food entirely."
The Jordan School District does not have a set policy, but a spokesman said they will charge elementary school students up to five days, after which the principal will work with the student and family. Their clerks are told specifically not to deny lunch to any students in elementary school. As the students enter middle school and high school, the system becomes stricter and the students are held more accountable. Parents can also make immediate payments on mobile devices.
In the Granite District, when an account hits zero, the student still gets lunch, and the parents get a phone call and a letter. The Canyons District has a similar notification system.
Each of these districts, including Salt Lake City, has computerized programs that enable parents to set up recurring payments and get timely notifications. Salt Lake City encourages parents to use that system, which can be accessed from its website.
"That will help," Olsen said. "But we also need to handle these things with delicacy."