It could have been a heartwarming Christmas story that defied the stereotype of the gravy-ladling "mean lunch lady." A 12-year-old student at Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho, told a cafeteria worker she was hungry but had no money to pay for lunch. The worker, Dalene Bowden, quickly handed the student a tray full of food.
The story has no happy ending for Ms. Bowden, however, and it has attracted attention and outrage from across the internet and both sides of the political spectrum.
Bowden's supervisor witnessed the free lunch change hands, and the school district has now fired her, Debbie Bryce reported for the Idaho State Journal. Bowden has used social media to share the letter telling her she was fired for "theft of school district property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food."
"This is just breaking my heart,” Bowden told the Idaho State Journal. "I broke the rules, but I offered to pay for the meal and I don’t think I deserved to lose my job over it."
A fellow resident of Pocatello started an online petition for Bowden's rehiring, and Bowden's GoFundMe page to hire a lawyer has received more than $4,000 at the time of this posting. Many who hear about it have expressed outrage at her firing and say the school should not have penalized her for helping the student.
News outlets from the liberal-leaning ThinkProgress to Glenn Beck's The Blaze have written about the woman's plight and the issue of school lunches for hungry students. A Facebook page called "Give Dalene Bowden her job back" with the statement, "This is horrible!!!! This woman has a Conscience and was punished for it!!!," was shared nearly 250 times and received more than 300 comments by early Wednesday afternoon.
School administrators said that the district has a specific system in place to provide food for children who do not have money for lunch. Shelley Allen, the spokeswoman for the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District, said parents are notified when students have more than $11 unpaid on their bill, but in the meantime, the hungry student receives a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk, according to the Idaho State Journal. The district also partners with the Idaho Foodbank to ensure that students who need it receive extra food on Friday to take home for the weekend.
Somewhere between the district's good intentions and Bowden's, however, the system appears to have broken down, and the discrepancy has created the conflict.
"I know I screwed up, but what are you supposed to do when the kid tells you that they’re hungry and they don’t have any money?" Bowden told the Journal.
Update: Bowden's job was reinstated Dec. 24 after intervention by the city with the school district, reported the Idaho State Journal.