A cafeteria worker was fired over the meal she gave a hungry child. After word got out, the school scrambled to calm furious parents. But, it only made people angrier.
Events Leading Up To The Termination:
Bonnie Kimball worked in the Mascoma Valley Regional High School lunchroom in Canaan, New Hampshire for 4 1/2 years before being fired for the way she treated a hungry student. Bonnie thought she was doing the right thing, but her employer, Cafe Services, disagreed, giving her the boot after seeing how she handled the difficult situation.
“We know these kids,” Bonnie said, referring to the small high school’s student population as well as their circumstances. So, when a student came through her line with his tray but no way to pay, she quietly told him to have his mom deposit money in his account. With Cafe Services’ contract up for renewal, a manager for the food vendor was observing operations at the school.
The student paid his tab the following day, but that didn’t matter to Bonnie Kimball’s boss. She was fired later, leaving her in utter disbelief since she says she was simply following directions. “We weren’t supposed to pull trays,” Bonnie said, explaining that her direct manager instructed staff to let students take food and discreetly remind them to have money added to their account.
Since the Abbey Group was going against Cafe Services in a bid for the district’s food services contract, which was worth more than $560,000 in revenue, Bonnie’s manager didn’t want any “scenes” with students who didn’t have money for lunch, she said. “I was doing what I was told to do,” Bonnie explained, admitting she allowed the student to take $8 worth of a la carte food without paying.
The School’s Response:
School Board Chairman Cookie Hebert said it’s the school’s policy to feed students and Cafe Services’ responsibility to ensure it’s followed. “There’s no refusal,” Herbert said, explaining students get lunch even if they can’t pay. However, it was Herbert’s understanding that students without money are given the lunch of the day and prohibited from getting a la carte menu items.
But, two other employees in the Mascoma lunchroom quit after Bonnie Kimball’s termination because, according to Bonnie, they knew she was following the manager’s instructions and wanted to protest her treatment. Reassuring parents that the staff resignations didn’t negatively impact the school, Herbert said, “There’s been no hiccups in the service to the district.” But, that did little to reassure an angry public as a media firestorm erupted, especially since Cafe Services was awarded the food vendor contract for another year.
The District & Vendor Attempt To Squash The Negative Publicity:
In a statement, Cafe Services denied that it would sack anyone over an $8 lunch debt. Human Resources Director Jaime Matheson said the company “would not authorize an employee to not feed a student or a staff member a meal.” He also asserted that “the student is provided a meal” when they do not have funds.
In Bonnie Kimball’s termination letter, however, Matheson wrote that a student came through the line with multiple food items that Bonnie “did not charge him for” and said it was a “strict violation” of their “Cash Handling Procedures, the School Charge Policy, and Federal Regulation governing free meals.” In other words, she was indeed fired for feeding the student.
Months after Bonnie was fired, the Mascoma Valley Regional School District was still scrambling to end the negative publicity. Superintendent Amanda Isabelle told Fresh Picks Cafe, a division of Cafe Services, Inc., to give the employee back her job, along with back pay, or face losing the contract. With $560,000 on the line, the vendor agreed to rehire Bonnie, even though President Brian Stone said the manager felt the termination was appropriate.
“In consultation with the school district … we are going to offer to rehire our recently terminated employee and provide her back pay and we will work with the school district to revise policies and procedures regarding transactions. We will then work with our manager on those policies,” Stone said in the statement.
But, Bonnie Kimball isn’t interested in the offer, believing the district only lent her support due to bad press. “They all just want me to get the press off their backs,” she said. After reading the district’s statement, it’s hard to disagree with her assumption.
“The events of these past few weeks and the feedback I have received from parents has given me considerable pause,” Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said. “As a school district, we understand the importance of rules and procedures, but upon reflection, I have become sufficiently convinced that it is wrong of us to assume that all the responsibility falls to the vendor, and I do not believe our communities would accept that explanation of this situation.”
It’s not clear what will happen to Cafe Services’ contract if Bonnie Kimball refuses to return to her job. But, she isn’t sympathetic to their plight. “They did this to themselves,” she said. Since the food vendor and the district both agreed that hungry children who couldn’t pay should be fed without a scene, it seems she’s right.
“The district’s policy regarding free lunches is that students will always be provided with meals, milk, fruits, and vegetables,” Isabelle said. “There are, however, items such as ice cream bars, sports drinks, and chips that are not provided for free.”
Restricting free items is understandable, but this child wasn’t getting a free lunch. He was told to pay later. Having him exchange his items would have drawn attention, causing a scene that Bonnie Killman was told to avoid. Although policies are black and white, real-life scenarios rarely are. “We know these kids,” Bonnie said, and she definitely proved she knew what was best in this situation. A child was fed, and the bill was paid. That’s where it should have ended.