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Utah's biggest school system apologized Thursday and told angry parents it was investigating why dozens of elementary school children had their lunches seized and thrown away when they didn't have enough money in their accounts.

"This was a mistake," said Jason Olsen, a spokesman for the Salt Lake School District. "There shouldn't have been food taken away from these students once they went through that line."

The district came under national criticism after as many as 40 kids were given fruit and milk and their real lunches were thrown away Tuesday at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City.

"She took my lunch away and said, 'Go get a milk,'" fifth-grader Sophia Isom told NBC station KSL. "I came back and asked, 'What's going on?' Then she handed me an orange. She said, 'You don't have any money in your account, so you can't get lunch.'"

Sophia's mom, Erica Lukes, called the move "traumatic and humiliating" and told the Salt Lake Tribune she was all paid up.

Olsen said that parents had been notified about negative balances Monday and that a child nutrition manager had decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue. They were thrown away because once food is served to one student it can't be served to another, he said.

That brought a storm of criticism on the elementary school's Facebook page, where scores of people denounced school and district officials as "heartless" and "inhumane."

Many of the complaints accused officials of being bullies — an assessment shared by state senators who showed up at the school Thursday to insist that no Utah schoolkid should ever go hungry.

"To me this rises to the level of bullying," Republican Sen. Todd Weiler said. "Children were humiliated."

"I think it's an abuse of power," Weiler said.