One Idaho school district is taking the "no such thing as a free lunch" platitude to a new level.
Dalene Bowden, a former food service worker in Pocatello's Irving Middle School, was fired from her job after handing out a free hot lunch to a student who said they were unable to afford it. The cost of the food was $1.70. Though Bowden even offered to pay that sum out of her own pocket, she was ultimately dismissed by the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.
"The reason for your termination is due to your theft-stealing [of] school district or another's property and inaccurate transactions when ordering, receiving and serving food," Susan Petit, the district's director of human resources, wrote to Bowden in a termination letter. "Consequently, because of the nature of your actions the district will not be maintaining your employment in any capacity." The letter added that any outstanding compensation owed would be mailed to Bowden within 10 days.
"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," Bowden told the Idaho State Journal. "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?"
Coming amid the holiday season, the termination struck many online as particularly Grinch-ian. Raushelle Goodin-Guzman started a formal petition online demanding that Bowden be reinstated. Goodin-Guzman has never even met Bowden but has two children currently enrolled in the district, according to the Idaho State Journal.
"This kitchen aid deserves to keep her job! Lunch room policies should prioritize kindness and making sure kids receive a nutritious lunch, so they can be ready to learn," the petition reads. "The policy is wrong! We need to change the policy or change the people making them!"
The petition also accused the district of needlessly draconian treatment toward students who were unable to pay. "Per policy of the school district, if a child's balance exceeds the $11 overdraft limit, the lunch is taken away and thrown out in front of the child and his [or] her peers, humiliating the child and making it hard on the kitchen aids to follow this policy," it reads. "Who would want to deny a child food (perhaps that child's only meal)?"
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 22,000 people had added their names to the petition. A Facebook group called Give Dalene Bowden Her Job Back had more than 2,000 likes and posted the original termination letter that she received from the district. Bowden has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for an attorney.
"I got fired for having a heart, please help me fight back," she wrote on the page.
Mic reached out to representatives of the school district, none of whom were available for comment, so it is yet to be seen whether the petition will prove effective. But with pressure building — and "naughty" and "nice" berths still up for grabs — a Christmas miracle might still be possible.