Southern California middle school students call for re-hiring of coach after he was fired for collecting and redistributing wasted fruit

April 14, 2016
Patrick Healy for NBC Los Angeles
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Chanting and carrying flyers for a second day, students protested the firing of a coach at a Southern California middle school over alleged violations involving his collecting and re-distributing food service fruit.
Arnold Villalobos said he was gathering only unwanted fruit that otherwise would have ended up in the garbage at Center Middle School in Azusa.
In the wake of his termination, students and their families were demanding Villalobos be reinstated by the Azusa Unified School District. Villalobos coached football, basketball, and softball teams, served as a proctor during lunch hour, and in the past year had also worked as a special education assistant.
Villalobos said he thought he was providing a service by keeping fruit from going to waste, and giving it to student-athletes and others on campus who wanted it. He said he was unaware of public health restrictions on re-serving unsealed food.
A Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, Villalobos said it troubled him to see so many students not eating the apples, oranges and bananas the school district's food service provided everyday as part of lunch at Center Middle School.
"They were just going to throw it away, so I thought I would do something good," said Villalobos, explaining that he placed an open box in the lunch area where students could leave unwanted fruit they had planned to throw away.
What he collected, he distributed around campus, earmarking some for members of the student sports teams that practiced each day after the final bell. Villalobos said he distributed all of the collected fruit at school and never took any home.
After three years of collecting fruit, food service told Villalobos for the first time last month he should not be doing so, according to the now-former coach. He said the day he received a written notice, he stopped.
In following weeks, some students brought him bags of fruit they had collected, which Villalobos said he threw away. By his own account, he was placed on suspension, and at a meeting last Friday at district headquarters, he was informed he was being terminated, because "taking" fruit from the students was not permitted.
Angel Olivares, a student-athlete, said he looked forward to the snacks after basketball practice, and his parents approved.
"Who wouldn't want to save that?" said Angel's mom, Amy.
But the school district told Villalobos he had violated the law by gathering students' lunch-line fruit and re-serving it, Villalobos recalled.  
Azusa Unified Superintendent Linda Kaminski, EdD, declined to discuss the case with NBC4, calling it a personnel matter. Kamininski did speak of the district's commitment to adhering to government requirements and providing students nourishing meals. She said the district has a program to collect uneaten fruit and clean it to meet requirements for re-serving, but could not provide details on when that program was launched, nor how much fruit has been re-served.
Villalobos said he had seen no evidence of such a program, other than what he was doing.
Several of the students Villalobos coached, along with their parents, protested the coach's termination.
"We want Arnold," chanted one group of students. Some printed fliers calling for his reinstatement and displayed them at school Tuesday. Parents backed them, praising Villalobos for mentoring students, encouraging them to keep up their grades and even helping them with homework.
"He's there for the kids," said Angel's father, Juan Olivares, recalling that Villalobos always made sure his student-athletes got home from games safely.
Parents prodded Azusa Unified to reverse course.
"I think they're making a really big mistake if they don't bring him back," Amy Olivares said.
The California School Employees Association intends to look into the case, a spokesman said.
"My kids are everything for me," Villalobos said.