In the age of social media, it’s become a lot more difficult to draw the lines between personal and professional lives. Many companies try to prevent their employees from posting anything related to work online, arguing that matters related to work should stay there.
But social media has also made it possible for honest employees to shed light on injustices they see at work. Sometimes, it takes just one post to make the public aware of wrongs that need to be righted.
And sometimes the alarm can be sounded by the least likely person—even a bus driver.
Johnny Cook is a simple man who loves riding and taking care of horses and is a proud patriot. He was employed as a bus driver for the Haralson County Middle School in Tallapoosa, Georgia. Cook loved his job and the kids he helped get safely to school every day. So when one of them, a boy in middle school, said, “Mr. Johnny, I’m hungry,” Cook took it seriously.
After talking more with the boy, Cook couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Apparently, the boy had been turned away from the lunch line because he didn’t have enough to pay for the meal—a measly 40 cents. Cook was furious that no one had stepped up to help the kid get a simple meal.
Unable to accept the situation, he took to Facebook to let others know about kids going hungry at their local schools. “This child is already on reduced lunch and we can’t let him eat.” Noting that child’s family was already in dire financial condition for him to receive discounted meals, Cook couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t be served.
“Are you kidding me? I’m [certain] there was leftover thrown away today. But kids were turned away because they didn’t have .40 on their account.”
A lil flustered this evening.A middle schooler got on my bus this evening and said mr johnny im hungry. I said why are…
Though Cook simply put the post up to rally parents and make sure that no one was going hungry, it soon went massively viral touching a nerve with people all over the country. “It just caught fire,” he told CNN affiliate station WGCL.
Cook had just put his finger on one of the worst tragedies of the American food system, the fact that over 12 million children in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means that those households don’t have enough food to satisfy all their family members’ daily requirements.
The next day, Cook was called in for a meeting with the top brass at the school, including the superintendent, the principal, and the lunchroom manager. He was informed that he had violated part of his contract with the Board of Education that stipulated not discussing work matters on employees’ social media accounts. The superintendent also claimed that the young boy’s statement about not receiving lunch was false.
I was glad to talk with Johnny Cook the other night. He is certainly appreciative of all the support. I will hopefully have an update this week. Thanks to all who have written in.
As Cook described the meeting on Facebook, “I apologized to Dr. Ridley [the school principal] for not coming to him with this matter along with Miss Harmon. I advised them that I was acting as an individual, a parent, and a person with a heavy heart, not as an employee of the [Board of Education].”
When the lunchroom manager explained that she had personally fed kids out of her own pocket when they didn’t have enough money, Cook expressed his sympathy and admiration for her. However, Cook pointed out that if she had never questioned whether kids were telling the truth about being hungry, why would the superintendent have doubted that the boy in question was also being honest?
From the superintendent’s perspective, the main issue was the bad press that the school and school district were receiving. According to Cook, he was given the option to recant his statement and apologize to Ridley and Harmon or else be terminated. Cook stood up for what he thought the truth was and was fired because of it.
Cook later produced a statement from the child in question, affirming that he had gone hungry at school that day, backing up the bus driver’s account of what happened. The news of his firing brought sympathetic messages from all over the country. “I’ve had phone calls from here to Spokane, Washington to Texas to Maine,” he told WGCL. Many of these were from parents who reported their kids getting turned away from lunch lines for not having enough money.
While Cook ended up losing his job, he had no regrets about taking a stand for hungry children. As he told WGCL: “I’m proud that I was able to take a stand where others might not have been able to, that I can maybe, in some little way, cause a change.”