A school lunch company that has been criticized for terminating one of its cafeteria workers for giving a hungry student a free lunch is firing back at its former employee.
Bonnie Kimball, a lunchroom employee at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, New Hampshire, was let go by her employer, Cafe Services, on March 28 after she gave a student lunch whose account showed it did not have enough funds to cover the $8 tab.
In a statement posted to YouTube on Monday, an official with Cafe Services called Kimball "dishonest" and said the student in question hadn't been charged for anything for the previous three months.
"In this situation, the student was not charged for any part of the meal," said Brian Stone, president of Fresh Picks Cafe, a division of Cafe Services. "The employee told the manager that she charged the student's account for the lunch, but the manager later confirmed there were no charges on the account, so what the employee said was not true."
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Stone went on to say that every student in the lunch line gets a lunch, so there was no reason for Kimball not to charge the account. Since Kimball was fired, he said the student's account has shown regular activity.
"This employee was dishonest and was let go for not following procedures," Stone said. "At Mascoma Valley, the policy is no student is refused a lunch. Now we'd like to get back to the business of feeding kids, because that's what we love to do."
In a phone interview Monday, Kimball said she was shocked when she saw the YouTube video.
"I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe it.' There could be backlash out of this that's gonna be worse for them," she told NBC10 Boston.
"It's a big mess. That's what it is, a big mess."
Kimball said she did nothing wrong, and the reason why there was no activity on the student's account was that his family no longer qualified for free lunch. She said he would usually either bring a bag lunch or his friends would buy him something to eat.
"I made sure the meal was paid for," she said. "To me, letting that kid go hungry because he didn't bring any money that day, that would have been wrong. If the bill did not get paid, damn straight I would have paid it out of my own pocket."
In an earlier interview, Kimball said she quietly told the student "tell your mom you need money." She said a manager just asked what was on the boy’s plate and walked away. The next morning the student paid his bill.
"The student brought the money in the morning – in the afternoon the district manager called me aside and fired me. Told me that that was theft because I let him leave the kitchen without paying for it," Kimball said.
She said the student's family is well known in town and she knew the bill would get paid. "If I called his mother, she would have come right in and paid the bill. But I didn’t want to get her out of work,” she said.
Kimball's plight has received national attention. Celebrity chef José Andrés, who is known for providing free meals to survivors of natural disasters, tweeted out Kimball's story Friday and encouraged her to apply for a position at his company.
"New Hampshire school cafeteria worker fired for giving food to student who couldn’t pay … The hero is Bonnie Kimball! If she needs a job we have openings at @thinkfoodgroup if you know her, let her know!" Andrés said in his tweet.
The decision also sparked an outcry locally and some coworkers quit in protest. The Mascoma Valley Regional School District, in a statement, said it would review its food services policies to avoid future conflicts between vendors and the district, and requested the right to be released from its contract with the company next year, which would open the process to other bidders.
Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said Friday she spoke with Cafe Services, and that the company had agreed to rehire Kimball, effective immediately, with back pay. Isabelle said in a statement that she told Cafe Services it could lose its renewal contract that was voted on by the school board just days earlier.
Kimball, however, declined the offer. She accused Fresh Picks, Cafe Services' school lunch division, of only offering to give her back the position so that it could keep its contract with the school.
She said Monday she's still weighing her options.
"A lot of really big offers are coming in for me right now," Kimball said. "I've just gotta decide which one I'm going to take."
She added that if Cafe Services leaves the school, she'll probably be back at Mascoma Valley.
About 364 out of the nearly 1,000 students enrolled in the district, or 36%, receive free or reduced fee lunch, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Isabelle said the district "does not refuse food to hungry children who cannot afford to pay." She noted in her statement that the free lunch policy is limited to "meals, milk, fruits and vegetables," but that other items such as "ice cream bars and sports drinks" are not provided for free.
It was not immediately clear if the student was given these non-essential nutritional items.
Kimball said she worked for the school for years and always served up lunch with a smile.
"They're all like my grandchildren – I've watched them all grow up. I was there four and a half years," Kimball said last week.
Even though Kimball lost her job, she hasn't lost touch with her students.
"I still go to their sports games. It's like one big family. I'm just not there every day," she said.
The incident comes as schools across the country are struggling to deal with how to address students who can’t pay for their lunch. A 2011 survey found that a majority of districts had unpaid lunch charges and that most dealt with it by offering students alternative meals. Last month, federal lawmakers also introduced “anti-lunch shaming” legislation to protect students with unpaid lunch bills. The USDA also discourages practices that stigmatize students, but allows districts to set their own policies.