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How one nonprofit is silencing 'lunch shamers'

Many schools take away hot food from kids who owe money at lunch.

When I was a kid, it was the red lunch ticket. Today it's the plain cheese sandwich. In both instances the message is loud and clear — and humiliating: "This child does not have enough money for lunch."

All across the country, public schools serve federally subsidized hot lunches to kids on a sliding scale based on financial need. When I was in school, the kids who got free or reduced-fee lunches "paid" for those lunches with a red ticket rather than the blue ticket given to kids whose parents paid the full fare.

I'm sure those tickets were part of some well-intentioned plan to count the number of kids utilizing the subsidized program, but for the kids in the lunchroom, those tickets screamed poverty louder than any words ever could have.

As far as I know, those red tickets have gone the way of pocket protectors and smoking lounges, but they have simply been replaced by the latest scarlet letter of the school cafeteria, the plain cheese sandwich.

In many school districts across the country, policies have been enacted that deny hot lunches to students who have a negative balance in their school lunch accounts. I have seen story after story of a student's hot lunch being taken away from them while they're in line, only to be replaced with a cheese sandwich. Often, the child is then lectured about their negative balance (a financial situation that they have no control over) and told — in front of their peers — that they will not be allowed to have a hot lunch until their balance is paid. And I thought the red tickets were harsh.

In one recent high-profile case, a cafeteria worker from Pennsylvania resigned in protest of her school's "lunch-shaming" policy after she was told for the second time this school year to take a hot lunch away from a child.

It's no secret that budgets are tight at schools across the country. For many, the unpaid balances on school lunch accounts add up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But surely there's a better way to recoup these funds than shaming kids in front of their friends.

Enter the Lunch Angel

Kenny Thompson (aka the Lunch Angel) has created an alternative. Thompson, a tutor and mentor at a Houston elementary school, was having lunch with one of his mentees when that child's lunch was taken away and replaced with a cheese sandwich. When Thompson inquired, he learned that this had been happening time and time again to students throughout the school. After talking with students, he also learned that many avoided the cafeteria altogether rather than face such public humiliation.

Thompson went out to his car and cried. Then he went back into the school and spoke with administration.

"I talked to the principal of the school and made it known that I didn’t want to ever see that again," Thompson told Nonprofit Quarterly.

"It was horrifying; it broke my heart," he added. "These are elementary kids. They’re not bankers, and not responsible for the financial issues in the household."

Thompson then paid off any outstanding balances remaining on any student's account out of his own pocket. And he added a small buffer to each so that the kids would have a few days before they went back into the red. Then he launched his own nonprofit, Feed the Future Forward, with the specific mission of helping students pay for school lunches and ending the policy of lunch shaming.

Feed the Future Forward raises funds by hosting charity events and collecting donations. The group uses all proceeds to pay off outstanding balances at school cafeterias in the Houston area. Since its launch last year, the program has expanded from one school to nearly 141 schools and 150,000 students in seven school districts.

It's not an ideal solution, but nothing ever is. What's important is that it benefits schools and students while helping every child gain access to a decent meal. And it does so without shaming kids in any way.

Now that's one fundraiser I'd be glad to support.



September 22, 2016, 8:31 a.m



Lynda Zelenka, executive director of Cy-Hope, accepts a $2,000 check from Feed the Future Forwards Kenny Thompson to help fund the Lunch Super Hero program in CFISD.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A little more than two years after partnering with Cy-Hope and the CFISD food service department to launch the Lunch Super Hero program for district students, Feed the Future Forward founder Kenny Thompson delivered a $2,000 check to Cy-Hope on Monday to help keep the fund replenished.

Thompson, Cy-Hope and the food service team collaborated on the Lunch Super Hero account to dissolve the alternative lunch program and ensure no student goes without a hot meal.

"I'm totally excited that Cy-Fair still has the lunch program that we can donate to care for these students," said Thompson, who gained a citywide reputation as the "Lunch Angel." "I want to stay focused on making these donations to these districts allowing us to keep these kids fed and have these impacts."

Thompson, who has launched similar funds at neighboring districts, has contributed a total of $4,000 to Cy-Hope for the fund in 2015-2016.

"Cy-Hope appreciates Kenny's faithfulness in supporting CFISD through Cy-Hope," said Lynda Zelenka, Cy-Hope executive director. "He routinely provides funding for the Lunch Super Hero program and we are thankful for the partnership in making life better for all the students in Cy-Fair!"

According to Darin Crawford, food service director, the Lunch Super Hero account is used every day in CFISD to support students in need. It has been used by every district campus and has received more than $30,000 in contributions for the current year.

Thompson said he looks forward to making a larger impact for the fund in 2016-2017.

"As the foundation grows, more corporate citizens are getting involved as well as private," he said. "My bank account is steadily growing, and having a major impact is what we set out to do.

"Early on I thought we'd be a flash in the pan. I thought we'd donate for so long and people may lose interest. But hunger and poverty are big issues in our city, and I think it hits home with a lot of people when kids are affected. Having these programs with Cy-Hope, etc., make a big difference. As long as these programs are still in place, we're going to keep donating. Bigger and better every year."

Donate to the Lunch Super Hero account through the Cy-Hope website.

February 4, 2015 is the 1 year anniversary of Feed the Future Forward and our efforts to feed lunch to all school children.  This day we were able to reflect back on where it all started.  Here are some new articles from the last few days that help tell our story.


Kenny pic

Photo by  Tony Bullard 2014, Freelance Photographer

Cy-Fair ISD officials are in search of a few more heroes to follow in the footsteps of "lunch angel" Kenny Thompson.
Thompson began by paying off negative account balances at an elementary school in Spring Branch ISD - and has since started a movement that has spread to multiple school districts.
Darin Crawford, director of food service for Cy-Fair ISD, said every year the department has a number of delinquent accounts for school lunches.
"This is a problem that exists nationwide," Crawford said. "It's a topic of conversation, but you don't hear a lot of solutions."
When accounts are not paid, the district has to use educational funds to cover the expense, he added.
Some schools have additional funds set aside to help out - but other campuses do not.
Thompson became aware of the problem when one of the several students he mentors was served a cold cheese sandwich at an elementary school in Spring Branch ISD.
The student's parents had not paid their bill - and he was served a subpar lunch as a result.
Around the same time, Thompson heard the story on national news about students in Utah who had their lunches yanked away due to delinquent accounts.

A right to a meal

Thompson, who lives in the Spring Branch area, believes that every child has a right to a school lunch.
Students need fuel to focus on their studies and to succeed in classroom tasks, he said.
"If they are not eating well, none of that happens," Thompson said. "Once the door closes, they're our kids. Why we can't feed them one meal a day is beyond me."
He also was upset to learn that students were being called out in public about the issue.
"It broke my heart," Thompson said. "These kids should not be shunned or shamed when they go to lunch."
He went onto the campus and paid the bill of the student he mentored - and that was just the beginning.
"I found out this was a problem, not just in my district but in every school district," he said. "I believe that if you want to change the world, you start by changing what's outside your window."
After helping a few more schools in the Spring Branch district, Thompson decided to expand his reach.
He established an organization to help - Feed the Future Forward - and then approached Cy-Fair ISD and started brainstorming with Crawford and Matt Morgan, the assistant superintendent of support services.
"In food service, it's the toughest thing to not feed a kid, because that's what we're here to do," Crawford said. "We met with Kenny, and he was so passionate about this. You could tell his heart was in it. We developed a game plan."
Instead of helping individual schools, a central account was created to serve all district schools - the Lunch Super Hero account.
District partner Cy-Hope, a nonprofit whose mission is to make life better for students in Cy-Fair, volunteered to facilitate donation efforts.
"Kenny started it, Cy-Hope stepped up and our administration supported us," Crawford added. "They said that this was the right thing to do, and that we should go for it."
The Cy-Fair School Food Service Association, an organization for school nutrition employees, also got on board, and all of the entities involved gathered to unveil the CFISD Lunch Super Hero account in April.

Thompson offered to kick off the account with a $1,000 donation.
The food service association followed suit, making a $2,000 donation provided by president Diana Silva.
Crawford said the account will make it possible for the district to help students who have exceeded the credit on their accounts.
"It's a national problem, but no one on a national level is attacking the problem," he said. "Locally I think we've come up with a solution that we be sustainable. In Cy-Fair, we're making sure that no kid is ever put in a position where they won't get a proper meal."
Now the district is busy raising more funds to deposit into the account.
"It's going to take some fundraising; it's going to take some work," Crawford said. "But it can be done, and we're going to do it."
Crawford and Thompson hope their efforts will inspire similar programs in other districts.
"Everybody I talk to knows this is a problem and knows it needs to be fixed," Thompson said. "We need to take care of our kids in Texas. If we can be a model as a state, we can hopefully eliminate this around the country."

Want to help?

Donate to the Lunch Super Hero account: Go to Donors will follow a link to the Cy-Hope donation form, where they can specify their donation amount under the "Provide lunch for Super Heroes" field.
By Lindsay Peyton, Houston Chronicle

0417 Lunch 3


The Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and the Lunch Angel!

Correction: The figures quoted in this video are a overall total of children helped and monies spent. Not the amount of this one school.

Kenny Thompson "Lunch Angel Press Conference at Horne Elementary
Correction: The figures quoted in this video are a overall total of children helped and monies spent. Not the amount of this one school.

A huge congratulations to Kenny Thompson for receiving the award for Four. For Good Award today on the steps of City Hall!

The organization accepted open nominations for its Four. FOR GOOD award that recognizes a group of individuals who embody the FOR GOOD Movement, an effort to inspire people across the U.S. to improve their communities in their own ways. A record volume of nominations were submitted and the four winners were announced today during a news conference at the celebration.

This is such a great honor & Kenny intends to continue to expand his mission in helping to serve our kids! Please help him by donating to

Stay tuned... more information to follow!!! Thanks again for all the continued support!

Read more:

Kenny Four award 2Kenny Four Award1


After Kenny T. walked into a school in Spring Branch ISD and paid the overdue lunch balances so the kids could eat lunch, there has been a flurry of media around this act and the issue at large. These are just a small sample of the videos and articles.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player
"Lunch Angel" Kenny Thompson pays off hundreds of students delinquent accounts

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The power of one person making a difference


These articles are a small sampling from around the country, all highlighting the act of kindness that started Feed the Future Forward. We are humbled by the support from around the U.S. and the World!

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