Lunch Lady Fired After Refusing to Humiliate Students: 'It's Not Right'

Rachel Bertsche

Della Curry, an elementary school kitchen manager, was fired for giving free food to students who couldn’t afford lunch. (Photo: CBS)

A mother who was fired from her job as an elementary school kitchen manager after giving away free lunches is taking a stand this week, saying current school policy humiliates hungry students.  

Della Curry, a mother of two, was hired as a kitchen manager for the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado last July. Before starting at Dakota Valley Elementary, a job she took after her kids entered the school district, Curry worked in the restaurant industry as a chef. “Nutritious food is a passion of mine,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. But in her job as kitchen manager, she often had to give kids food that she says was anything but nutritious. “Parents put money on their kids’ accounts, and if they don’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, they are allowed to go negative on their accounts and borrow about $7.60, which is about three lunches,” Curry says. “After that, if they don’t have money for lunch, they get one slice of processed cheddar cheese – or, they say it’s cheddar though it’s got a two-year shelf life – on a hamburger bun and a small milk.”

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In her position, Curry was often manning the cash register, so she would see students come through the line with a hot lunch and then learn that their accounts did not have enough credit on them. “The policy is to then take their food from them and throw it away, and give them the cheese sandwich,” she says. “I couldn’t do it. When I had money I would put it in for them, and if I did not have money, I gave them the food.”

On Friday, Curry was fired. “I will never say I was wrongfully terminated, because according to policy, I was not,” she says. “But it’s not right. No child should ever have to have that nutrition – it’s not nutrition – or that humiliation.”

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The school district does provide free and reduced-cost school lunches, but to qualify for the free program, a family of four would need a household income of around $31,000, according to CBS 4. For reduced cost lunch, income would have to be below $45,000. The students Curry was giving lunch to, she says, were “the students who fall into the gap,” meaning their household incomes were higher than the threshold for reduced lunch, but the families sometimes didn’t have money to give the kids for school meals. “Or, mom forgot to pack a lunch, or a check for lunch got lost at the bottom of a backpack. It happens.”

Curry says she was aware of students who often went negative on their lunch money accounts and says she often sought help. “I reached out to parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and in a lot of cases I found out things were going on back at home, and in a lot of cases I was able to get them back on track.” When she couldn’t, though, she gave them food. And while she doesn’t dispute her termination, she does disagree with the policy. “No child should be worried about eating at school,” she says. “I want school lunch to be an integral included part of every child’s education. I want it to be paid for through our taxes the same way the rest of their schooling is.”

An official at Cherry Creek School District told Yahoo Parenting she could not comment on Curry’s termination as state laws don’t permit her to discuss an employee’s departure or the reasons for it. However, a statement on the school district’s website reads: “Decisions regarding food service workers are made by the district Food and Nutrition Services department and not by a school’s principal. The law does not require the school district to provide a meal to children who have forgotten their lunch money - that is a district decision. According to our practice, we provide hot meals to students the first three times they forget their lunch money and charge their parents’ accounts. The fourth time, we provide a cheese, or if available turkey, sandwich and milk. No child is ever allowed to go without lunch. The district does receive some funding from the federal government for free and reduced lunches for children living in poverty. For those students who qualify for a reduced lunch price, we cover the remaining cost and do not charge the student. Nearly one-third of Cherry Creek School District students receive free lunches every day under the federal Free and Reduced lunch program. The district has worked to keep lunch prices low and still meet the federal nutrition requirements. The costs of our lunch program are not covered by the prices we charge. At the end of the year, any unpaid accounts are covered by the general fund which also includes instruction, security, building maintenance and overall operations. Again, no child is ever denied a meal due to the inability to pay.”

Curry says she’s sad to leave her students and that she’s heard from plenty of parents who are angry about her dismissal. “There were a lot of kids who I connected with. I knew who had celiac disease, who had social anxiety going through the line and needed help, who got braces that day and needed something soft,” she says. As for giving away meals, she says she isn’t sorry. “I don’t regret a single thing I did for those kids.”

Now that she’s out of a job, Curry hopes to refocus on a gourmet hard candy company that she started a few years ago. She also plans to be an activist for school nutrition. “The end goal is to make official legislation to cover school lunch as part of public education,” she says. “I want America to feed its children.”

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