Lunch Shaming Banned in California Schools: Governor Outlaws Alternative Meals For Students with Food Debt

The governor of California has signed a bill looking to put an end to state schools giving "alternative meals" to students who have unpaid lunch bills.

Explaining his decision to support SB 265, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was inspired by the story that surfaced in June of a 9-year-old boy named Ryan Kyote. Kyote spent close to $80 paying off the lunch debts of his third-grade classmates at West Park Elementary School in Napa.

Newsom said in a media release this weekend that the young student's actions demonstrated how "kids at his school were shamed and singled out because of inadequate funds in their school lunch accounts."

He said the bill would mean all students receive a state reimbursable meal of their choice even if their parent or guardian accrues some unpaid meal fees.

SB 265, which was penned by Van Nuys Democrat Sen. Robert Hertzberg, adds amendments to the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017.

"Creating a 'California for All' means ensuring schools are inclusive, accepting, and welcoming of all kids. These bills help move us closer to that goal," Gov. Newsom said in a release. "I want to thank Ryan for his empathy and his courage in bringing awareness to this important issue."

Napa Valley Unified School District says online that students with a negative lunch account still receive a hot meal. Elementary prices range from $0.30 to $3.25, the website states. Kylie Kirkpatrick, Kyote's mother, said her son had been upset at the debt policy, ABC7 reported.

The story spread after Kirkpatrick posted about her son's donation on Facebook, CBS News reported. It gained the attention of 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, who tweeted: "School lunch debt should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world."

In August, Gov. Newsom's office posted images of the politician meeting the child. "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," a caption read.

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. #CaliforniaForAll

— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) August 9, 2019

A February 2018 bulletin from the California Department of Education about the use of alternate meals and handling of unpaid bills conceded such meals were "not clearly defined" by law.

In May this year, a school district in Rhode Island was criticized after creating a policy that said any student with unpaid bills would be given cold sandwiches until lunch fees were paid. Online, parents complained it was a clear example of lunch shaming. "Why take it out on kids if parents are struggling?" one person complained on Facebook under Warwick Public Schools' post. A local business owner claimed she had been turned away after offering to cover the student debt.

Stock Image: school cafeteria
File photo: Girl holding food tray in school cafeteria. iStock