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9-year old Ryan Kyote helped end lunch shaming in California



I saw on the news about a little girl that was in line, she got her lunch and then the cafeteria person said, ‘You don’t have enough money so you need to give it back,'” said 10-year old Ryan Kyote.

When Ryan Kyote arrived at the Rhode Island State House early Friday afternoon, State Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) presented him with a citation for “the distinguished honor” of his “visit to the Rhode Island State House and being named one of Time Magazine‘s most influential people of 2019 for your compassion and advocacy in elevating the issue of lunch shaming. The entire membership extends its best wishes on this occasion and expresses the hope for continued good fortune.” The citation was signed by Ranglin-Vassell, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston), Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) and Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly).

Citations are easy. Actually ending lunch shaming should be as well.

Lunch shaming, still a policy in many Rhode Island school districts, penalizes children and their families for being unable to pay for school lunches. In some districts, students who are short on funds were forced to watch as cafeteria workers tossed their hot lunch into the trash, to be replaced by a cold slice of cheese between two slices of bread. In other districts, the families of children who have fallen behind on their lunch payments are pursued by collection agencies who have tacked on interest payments to their bills.

Over the years, some school districts have ended such policies. Others have just grown quiet about it.

For the last three years Representative Ranglin-Vassell has introduced legislation to end lunch shaming in Rhode Island. Each year the bill dies in committee, “held for further study.” The issue is ignored by the same House leadership that signed Ryan Kyote’s citation.

Ryan Kyote is now ten-years old, and was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential persons because last year he helped end lunch shaming in California schools. He loves sports, and seems to play them all. He was very impressed by the snow here in Rhode Island, but was less impressed by the cold. He told reporters about why he wanted to end lunch shaming in our state:

“I saw on the news about a little girl that was in line, she got her lunch and then the cafeteria person said, ‘You don’t have enough money so you need to give it back,'” said Kyote. “So she went to the end of the line, then other kids started making fun of her and she started crying.”

This news report spurred Kyote into action. He had his mother find out about lunch shaming policies in California, then he used his allowance to pay off the lunch debts of his classmates. “I had my chore money and I did chores for six months and it came up to $74.80.”

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Weeks later, as the California legislature debated ending lunch shaming, news about Kyote’s generosity spread, and when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill to end the policy, he thanked Kyote.

“No child should be shamed or denied food at school because they don’t have the money to pay for it – for any reason,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell. “Kids can’t concentrate on learning when they are hungry. In a country where there is such wealth, it is outrageous that lunch debt is even a concept. At nine, Ryan Kyote can understand the importance of lifting this burden from kids, and he made it happen himself for his class. In Providence, we’ve done the same by providing lunch for everyone this year. I hope Ryan’s message will be heard by those in power here in Rhode Island and that we can do the same for kids statewide, so we can put an end to lunch shaming and lunch debt and make sure kids are fed and ready to learn.”

In the upcoming 2020 legislative session, Ranglin-Vassell intends to once again submit legislation to require universal free lunch at all public elementary and secondary schools statewide. Ironically, it was her interest in ending lunch shaming that helped get the ball rolling on such legislation in California. Ranglin-Vassell recalled that four years ago she received a call from a young California legislator asking about her efforts to end lunch shaming.

“He said, I heard what you’re doing in Rhode Island and can you walk me through what you’re doing in Rhode Island?” recalled Ranglin-Vassell. “And I had a long conversation with him about the work that I had started to do here in Rhode Island around lunch shaming.”

Kyote, Jorge Elorza and Ranglin-Vassell

After meeting at the State House and taking a short tour of the building, Kyote later met with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. Hearing Kyote’s story, Elorza noted that “a lot of people probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, but you know what I’ve learned, there’s a lot of qualities to leadership, but the most important quality to leadership is always taking the initiative to do the right thing, and that’s exactly what you did.”

Providence began providing universal free lunch this school year, and free dinners as well.

“One other issue that we’ve been tackling is that kids not only have a hard time getting food at school, but in the evenings too,” explained Elorza. “At our recreation centers, before I took office, we used to serve about 3000 meals, dinners, throughout the year. We’ve increased that. This past year we served about 120,000 meals at our recreation centers. We want it so that when kids come to school, everyone gets fed and if they’re out of school, there’s a place to go where they can get dinner as well.”

When Ranglin-Vassell’s bill comes before a House committee for public discussion this year, Kyote hopes to be here to testify. Asked how he feels now that lunch shaming has been banned in California, Kyote said simply, “It felt awesome to see all my friends have lunch now.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.