Gov. Gavin Newsom gave a special shoutout to elementary schooler Ryan Kyote for helping bring the issue to national attention
A 10-year-old boy’s fight to end student lunch debt and save his classmates the shame of being served an “alternative” meal at school has inspired real change in California.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Saturday to ban the practice of singling out students unable to pay for their lunch, and cited the efforts of elementary schooler Ryan Kyote in helping bring the issue to greater attention.
“I want to thank Ryan for his empathy and his courage in bringing awareness to this important issue,” Newsom said in a news release.
The new legislation, authored by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, makes it so schools are no longer allowed to serve cheaper, “alternative” lunches to students whose parents are unable to pay.
It ensures that all students will get a “state reimbursable meal of their choice,” even if their parent or guardian has unpaid meal fees.
Kyote made headlines this summer after he donated $74.80 of his allowance savings to pay off the school lunch debt for his third-grade classmates at West Park Elementary School in Napa, California.
His generosity even led to a meeting with Newsom in August, where the Democrat promised that if he got the bill on his desk, he would sign it, Kyote’s mom Kylie Kirkpatrick tells PEOPLE.
“What we’ve been telling everybody is one down and 49 to go,” she says of the remaining states she’d like to see take similar action. “Millions and millions of children will be positively affected by [this policy] and Ryan couldn’t be more proud. We still have a lot of work to do and hopefully will get something passed at the federal level.”
Kirkpatrick told PEOPLE in June that her son’s activism first took off after he heard about a 5-year-old in Indiana who was denied lunch because they were unable to pay for the meal.
“He was like, ‘I don’t understand why that happened. Why would that happen to a 5-year-old?’ ” she said. “It really touched him in a way and he wanted to do something so that wouldn’t happen to his friends. We talked about what we could do to make a difference locally.”
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The average lunch debt incurred by U.S. students was $2,500, School Nutrition Association spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told the New York Times.
In September, a 9-year-old Ohio boy had his lunch taken away from him on his birthday because of a $9 unpaid debt on his account, and was given cheese and bread instead.
The Green Local School district later amended its policy so that all students would be able to receive their standard lunch regardless of account balance.
Three-quarters of the 5 billion lunches served in school cafeterias in 2018 were offered at a free or reduced price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In May, Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island responded to backlash by reversing a policy that would have limited students who held a lunch debt to eating a cold sun butter and jelly sandwich instead of a variety of hot lunch options. The district said it implemented the policy because it had accumulated a $77,000 lunch debt.
The School Nutrition Association previously reported that 75 percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.