A student who paid off his class’ cafeteria debt with his allowance inspired a new California bill that ensures students don’t have to worry about their next meal.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new bill into law on Saturday that guarantees all students will receive school lunch even if their parents or guardians have not paid their meal fees, according to CNN. The bill ensures "that the pupil is not shamed or treated differently from other pupils,” to combat policies that perpetuate lunch shaming by taking away lunch trays or providing students with less nutritious alternatives if their meal accounts have negative balances. Authored by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, the piece of legislation also includes guidelines for how to notify parents if their children have a negative balance.
Nutrition advocates support the bill but hope to see further legislation to ensure all students have access to proper nutrition.
Newsom met with 9-year-old Ryan Kyote of Napa County, one of the many students recently bringing attention to lunch debt issues, in August. Kyote made headlines in June after collecting $74.80 of his allowance to pay his third-grade class’s lunch debt.
"I want to thank Ryan for his empathy and his courage in bringing awareness to this important issue," Newsom said in a news release.
Governor @GavinNewsom had the honor to meet Ryan Kyote last week. This amazing young man saved his allowance and used it to pay his classmates’ lunch debt. For Ryan, it was just wrong that some kids couldn’t afford to eat lunch. He’s right about that. #CaliforniaForAllpic.twitter.com/4DIse1OEGo— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) August 9, 2019
The bill is a positive step toward ensuring that children have the nutrition they need to do well in school, Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center told Global Citizen. And while it’s wonderful when people like Kyote donate to help cover the costs of lunch debt, she said, those gestures are not a long term policy solution.
“The issue of meal debt just shines a light on how challenging it is to not be able to offer free meals to all students,” FitzSimons said.
One of the most important components of the bill is that children who accrue lunch debt can directly qualify for free or reduced lunch, she explained.
Kyote’s mom Kylie Kirkpatrick hopes other states follow California’s lead.
“Millions and millions of children will be positively affected by [this policy] and Ryan couldn’t be more proud,” Kirkpatrick told People. “We still have a lot of work to do and hopefully will get something passed at the federal level.”
Lunch shaming can ostracize low-income students, embarrass them, and make it harder to thrive at school if they’re distracted by whether or not they can afford to eat. Students whose families don’t qualify for subsidized or free lunch but are still struggling financially are hurt the most by lunch debt.
Lunch debt is not just a problem in California — 76% of America's school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. Many schools serve an "alternate meal," like a cheese sandwich, once a student's debt hits $15, according to CNN.
States are slowly introducing policies that prevent lunch shaming. Before California, New Mexico, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all passed bills against the harmful practice. Rhode Island is in the process of passing similar legislation.