New Hampshire

Chef José Andrés Offers to Hire NH Lunch Lady Fired for Giving Student Free Lunch

Andrés, who is known for providing free meals to survivors of natural disasters, offered Bonnie Kimball a job at his company

A New Hampshire cafeteria worker who was fired after giving a hungry student a free lunch has been offered a job with a world renowned chef.

Chef José Andrés, who is known for providing free meals to survivors of natural disasters, tweeted the story of Bonnie Kimball Friday and encouraged her to apply for a position at the celebrity chef's company, according to a report on News Center Maine.

"New Hampshire school cafeteria worker fired for giving food to student who couldn’t pay … The hero is Bonnie Kimball! If she needs a job we have openings at @thinkfoodgroup if you know her, let her know!" Andrés said in his tweet.

Kimball, a lunchroom employee at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, was let go by her employer, Cafe Services, Inc., on March 28 after she gave a student lunch whose account showed it did not have enough funds to cover the $8 tab.

Kimball told The Associated Press she quietly told the student "tell your mom you need money." She said a manager just asked what was on the boy’s plate and walked away. The next morning the student paid his bill. 

"The student brought the money in the morning – in the afternoon the district manager called me aside and fired me. Told me that that was theft because I let him leave the kitchen without paying for it," Kimball said.

Kimball told the AP the student's family is well known in town and knew that the bill would get paid. "If I called his mother, she would have come right in and paid the bill. But I didn’t want to get her out of work,” she said.

The decision sparked a public outcry and, according to the AP, some coworkers quit in protest. The Mascoma Valley Regional School District, in a statement, said it would review its food services policies to avoid future conflicts between vendors and the district, and requested the right to be released from its contract with the company next year, which would open the process to other bidders.

Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said Friday she spoke with Cafe Services, and that the company had agreed to rehire Kimball, effective immediately, with back pay. Isabelle said in a statement that she told Cafe Services it could lose its renewal contract that was voted on by the school board just days earlier.

Kimball, however, declined the offer.

She accused Fresh Picks, Cafe Services' school lunch division, of only offering to give her back the position so that it could keep its contract with the school. 

A spokesperson for Cafe Services told NBC10 Boston the information as reported by Kimball was not accurate.

"Fresh Picks Cafe, a division of Cafe Services, Inc., would never authorize an employee to not feed a student or a staff member a meal," the company said.

About 364 out of the nearly 1,000 students enrolled in the district, or 36%, receive free or reduced fee lunch, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Isabelle said the district "does not refuse food to hungry children who cannot afford to pay." She noted in her statement that the free lunch policy is limited to "meals, milk, fruits and vegetables," but that other items such as "ice cream bars and sports drinks" are not provided for free. 

It was not immediately clear if the student was given these non-essential nutritional items. 

Kimball said she worked for the school for years and always served up lunch with a smile.

"They're all like my grandchildren – I've watched them all grow up. I was there four and a half years," Kimball said Thursday.

Even though Kimball lost her job, she hasn't lost touch with her students.

"I still go to their sports games. It's like one big family. I'm just not there every day," she said.

The incident comes as schools across the country are struggling to deal with how to address students who can’t pay for their lunch. A 2011 survey found that a majority of districts had unpaid lunch charges and that most dealt with it by offering students alternative meals. Last month, federal lawmakers also introduced “anti-lunch shaming” legislation to protect students with unpaid lunch bills. The USDA also discourages practices that stigmatize students, but allows districts to set their own policies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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