9-year-old uses own allowance to cover school lunch debts for his entire 3rd grade class

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

Boy pays off classmates' lunch debts

A 9-year-old boy in Napa, California, proved he was wise beyond his years when he decided to selflessly pay off his classmates' school lunch debts. Ryan Kyote became upset when he saw a news story about a 5-year-old girl who was denied lunch at school because she couldn't afford it. This story prompted Ryan to take action, his mom, Kylie Kirkpatrick told CBS News.

Ryan started wondering what his own school's lunch money policy was. "He said, 'Nobody should have to buy their lunch at school. We should just have lunch together, because we're friends and that's what we do.'"

His mom said she reached out to the Napa school district's food services department and found out that students are not ever turned away from lunch, but they can accrue debt if they don't have money to pay for it.

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"Unbeknownst to the parents, they get a bill sent home to them," Kirkpatrick said. "I mean, imagine a 5-year-old coming home with a bill in their backpack for $500."

Kirkpatrick told Ryan what the school district said to her. "He said, 'Well, I don't want my classmates to have to pay for that [debt],'" the mom said.

She then asked the district how much money the third grade students owe. In total, Ryan's classmates owed $74.50 in lunch money debt. Ryan knew what he had to do.

He collected his allowance — which he normally spends on sports gear — and with his mom, took it to the school. "He used his money to pay the debt, and the office was really confused about what was going on. We explained the story and they happily took the donation," Kirkpatrick said.

"He told the school secretary, 'Can you please tell my friends' families that they don't owe any money for lunch,'" Kirkpatrick said. "And that was that."

Ryan Kyote KGO-TV via NNS

Kirkpatrick posted about the story on social media to raise awareness about school lunch debt, which has gained national attention recently. Soon, the Napa Paper and other media companies were interested in Ryan's story.

Kirkpatrick said she could cry thinking about how her son handled the situation. Her son wanted to stay anonymous and didn't want to brag about helping his friends.

The proud mom said 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders shared the story on Twitter. Sanders' opinion was this problem should not even exist. "'School lunch debt' should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world," Sanders wrote. "When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals."

“School lunch debt” should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals. https://t.co/09z1PdR4WG

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 10, 2019

School lunch debts can affect families across the country. When a school district in Rhode Island announced in May that students who cannot pay for lunch will be fed sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches until their debt is paid, one parent tried to pay off the debts.

Angelica Penta, whose son goes to a school in the district, said she was outraged after receiving an email from Warwick Public School District about the new lunch system. She offered to pay $4,000 to cover one school's debt — and her donation was denied.

The mother's story prompted the school district to reverse the policy.

Soon after, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya said he and everyone at the company was heartbroken by Warwick Public School's lunch money policy. Ulukaya tweeted "every child should have access to natural, nutritious & delicious food, so @Chobani is doing our small part to help pay this debt."

While Ryan's donation was well-received, even the young boy knows school lunch debts can remain an issue. The school district said they adjust lunch prices based on family income, according to Kirkpatrick. They will also never turn a child away from a meal — even if they are in debt.

Ryan, however, knows first hand from his classmates that some of them could go hungry during the day, only eating snacks shared with them by classmates or teachers, Kirkpatrick said. That's why spending his allowance money on the school lunch debt was an easy decision to make.

First published on June 11, 2019 / 5:37 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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