It was 15-year-old Danielle Aiken’s first day of school, and she was 15 cents short when she went to pay for her school midday meal. What the lunch lady did next shocked her mom, Kimberly. And she spurred her into action for the sake of her daughter and other kids in the same shoes.
Danielle attends University High School in Orange City, Florida, which is part of Volusia County Schools. In 2010, the year it opened, it had more students enrolled than any other high school in the county. And the 2016 – 2017 year saw 2,824 students on the roster.
Much of University High School’s academic focus is on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It even partners with local universities to create STEM and finance academies for students to hone their skills pre-college.
For Danielle, though, the focus is on an entirely different career path, according to her mom, Kimberly. She told the Miami Herald, “She’s a fire cadet and is staying focused on finishing school so she can become a firefighter.”
August 14, 2018, marked Danielle’s first day back at University High School in pursuit of that goal. The day followed its normal course. She headed to the School Way Café, Volusia County Schools’ meal service for its students. In 2017, the eateries doled out nearly eight million breakfasts and lunches to pupils within the county.
The cafeteria also offers families-in-need a free or reduced-cost meal plan. Kimberly told CBS News that she had signed up for the program. But on the first day of school, the offer hadn’t yet been applied in her daughter’s case.
Kimberly told ABC 13, “[Danielle put] her food on the tray, [got] to the front, [and gave] her number to the cashier.” That should have been it. The 15-year-old would normally walk off with her lunch after that.
But the cafeteria worker realized a deficit on Danielle’s account. “Well, you owe 15 cents,” she reportedly told the firefighter-in-training. She then explained to the School Way Café staffer that she didn’t any more money.
And that’s when the cashier did something unexpected. “[She] took [Danielle’s] food,” mom Kimberly told ABC 13. And, without a school lunch and with no money on-hand, she went the rest of the school day without eating, her mom told the broadcaster.
Like any parent would be, Kimberly was angry. She was upset not just for Danielle, but for any University High School student in a similar situation. “Just to think that this could happen to anybody’s child kind of infuriates me,” she told CBS News.
That was partly because Kimberly knew the importance of food for students learning all day long. “That’s the big thing, eating breakfast and eating lunch so they can make sure they’re doing good on their work. But then you starve my child,” she angrily explained to ABC 13.
Kimberly told CBS News, “You want to make sure that yours kids are coming to school and they’re being taken care of.” She argued to the broadcaster that this is especially true in today’s environment, where “these scary things are happening.”
With all the added stress and fear for today’s students, Kimberly said that a healthy meal should be a given. “The one thing you don’t want them to worry about is are they going to be able to eat when they go to lunch,” she continued to CBS News.
Kimberly’s experience made headlines and shone a spotlight on Volusia County School. Spokesman Rodger Edgcomb told News 6, “The school is always willing to work with students and families in need.”
Edgcomb added, “The school will be contacting the family directly to help resolve this issue.” But University High officials weren’t the only ones who responded to Danielle’s story. A famous rapper was touched by it, too.
On August 19, 2018, rapper T.I. took to Twitter to condemn the way Danielle had been treated, saying it “keeps kids from coming to school.” Then, he offered to fund the cost of her school lunch for the year.
As of August 28, Kimberly told the Miami Herald that she hadn’t yet heard from T.I. But she did appreciate the attention he brought to her cause, one that she vowed to continue pursuing. “My main concern is to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other child,” she told the newspaper.
So, Kimberly teamed up with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and began fundraising for students across the country who have trouble paying for their lunches. According to the organization’s director of communications, Derrick Robinson, “More than 13 million children go to school hungry.”
Robinson explained what Danielle’s experience represented. He told the Miami Herald, “There is no reason for University High to have turned away Danielle for 15 cents. No student should be penalized because of their poverty. The humiliation and stigma associated with cases similar to Danielle’s is palpable.”
Robinson said he had yet to hear from Volusia County regarding Danielle’s story. But he added that it wouldn’t stop his and Kimberly’s efforts to change school-lunch procedures. “We will continue putting pressure on and remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure school systems […] examine their policies concerning unpaid meal fees, and consider the impact such policies have on children and families,” he told the Miami Herald.