Lunch Ladies Fired for Feeding Hungry Students: The Real Problem

Right before the holidays, another lunch lady was fired for feeding a hungry student who didn’t have money to pay for her lunch. Hunger in America is a growing problem, and the fact that employees would go as far as to put their jobs on the line to feed kids who would otherwise go without underscores a greater problem: the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

In June 2015, CNN reported on the story of Della Curry, a cafeteria worker for the Cherry Creek School District, in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. A mother of two herself, Curry decided to give food to hungry students for free and has said she’d do it again in a minute.

“I had a first grader in front of me, crying, because she doesn’t have enough money for lunch. Yes, I gave her lunch,” Curry told KCNC-TV. “I’ll own that I broke the law. The law needs to be changed.”

While some students just forget to bring their lunch money, other students come from families that don’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, and don’t have the money to send a lunch with them to school. Curry has on occasion paid for lunches from her own pocket.

To the school district’s credit, “No child is ever allowed to go without lunch.” Students who forget their lunch money are given three free lunches before they are given a cheese or turkey sandwich and a carton of milk. Curry argues that this is not enough food for a school-aged student, but the school district is in a tough spot: it simply doesn’t have the money to cover free lunches.

“If me getting fired for it is one way that we can try to change this, I’ll take it in a heartbeat,” said Curry.

In a similar case, Idaho lunch lady Darlene Bowden was placed on unpaid leave near the end of winter term when she gave food to a 12-year-old girl who told her she didn’t have any money for lunch.

“My heart hurts,” Bowden told local station KPVI. “I truly loved my job, and I can’t say that I wouldn’t do it again.” Bowden was terminated for “theft” according to the letter she received a few days after her leave.

Bowden has since been offered her job back after “tens of thousands” of people signed a petition online calling for her reinstatement. “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.”

But Bowden is still at a loss for what to do. “What do I do the next time a kid is hungry? I feed just to get terminated?”

Dwindling middle class and hungry kids

Hungry kids are a heartbreaking symptom of the economic trend. The American middle class is dwindling, leaving more people in either the lower or upper classes than ever before.  

According to the current Income Eligibility Guidelines from the Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service’s Child Nutrition Program, a family of four in the 48 contiguous states must make less than $31,525 for free lunch and $44,863 annually to qualify for the federal reduced lunch program. This means that there is a significant number of kids who come from families that have a hard time putting food on the table, but make too much money to qualify for free or reduced lunches. These children often have very little for lunch or go without healthy food.

In fact, for many of these kids, lunch is their only meal of the day. Feed the Children estimates that more than 17 million households across the U.S. don’t have enough food to feed every person in the family, but the good news is, we can help.

How can you help combat hunger?

There are a number of ways to help hungry kids get the food they need. Some churches and private organizations participate in bagged lunch projects, like the Brown Bag Ministry in central North Carolina. Each Saturday morning, a group of volunteers gathers at five different sites to assemble lunches that are distributed to the hungry or homeless. Check with your local church to find out if they have a similar program. Often, these organizations will gladly accept help or donations from community members.

Schoolgirl holding plate of lunch in school cafeteriaOrganizations like Feed the Children and Feeding America focus on distributing meals to the hungry and are always looking for volunteers or donations. Local grocery stores often provide bagged food for customers to purchase and donate to local food banks.

Schools have become a place where kids not only learn skills that will make their lives better, but also a battleground for combatting hunger. As cafeteria workers, parents and community members stand up for the hungry kids in their communities, perhaps we’ll see some policies change.

Have you been involved with an organization that battles hunger?

—Megan Winkler

Megan Winkler is an author, historian, Neurosculpting® meditation coach, certified nutritional consultant and DIY diva. When she’s not writing or teaching a class, Megan can be found in the water, on a yoga mat, learning a new instrument or singing karaoke. Her passion for a healthy mind-body-spirit relationship motivates her to explore all the natural world has to offer.


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