Our View: Hunger in Minnesota is hard to see, but very real
Last year, residents made a record 5.5 million visits to food shelves, applications for “food stamps” are up more than 200 percent since 2019, and an estimated one in nine are food insecure.
Last week, during debate on the floor of the Minnesota Senate, Republican Sen. Steve Drazkowski had this to say about a plan to provide free school lunch for all students in Minnesota: “I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry. … I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don't have access to enough food to eat.”
Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law on Friday, but not before video of Drazkowski's speech went viral. For a couple days, he was the target of publications including Rolling Stone, the Washington Post and Vanity Fair, which called Drazkowski “uniquely evil.”
While it would be easy (and rather satisfying) to join this chorus of vitriol against Drazkowski, we choose to go in a different direction: We'll take him at his word.
No, we're not saying Drazkowski is correct. Last year, Minnesotans made a record 5.5 million visits to food shelves, which is nearly 2 million more than 2021 and 2020. Inflation has taken a huge bite out of Minnesotans' budgets, and wages aren't keeping up. Applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as “food stamps”) are up more than 200 percent since 2019, and an estimated one in nine Minnesotans are food insecure – which means they don't know when, where or how they will get their next meal.
We'd prefer to believe that every elected member of the Minnesota Legislature, including Drazkowski, is aware of this problem, but perhaps there's something to be learned by looking closely at his words.
Hunger in Minnesota looks nothing like hunger in a third-world country. It doesn't feature hollow cheeks, distended stomachs and emaciated limbs. Hunger here is hidden, its toll insidious. If you don't make a point of seeking out and speaking with people who are hungry, then you can remain blissfully ignorant of their suffering.
So yes, it's possible that Drazkowski might never have looked into a mother's eyes as she said, “My kids ate dinner last night, but I didn't.” He might never have met an elderly couple that eats just one meal per day, nor a restaurant server who works until midnight serving food to strangers, then returns home to an empty refrigerator.
But if Drazkowski has set foot in a grocery store, he's been in the presence of hunger, whether he was aware of it or not. He's waited in checkout lines with people who would love to buy chicken or hamburger, but instead must opt for beans, rice and ramen. He's rubbed shoulders with people who were “stretching” their prescription medications in order to afford milk, eggs and fresh fruit. Perhaps he's even chatted with someone whose cart contained ample food for one week – but it will have to last for two.
That's hunger in Minnesota. If you choose not to look for it, it can be largely invisible – but that doesn't mean it isn't very, very real.
That's why on March 1, Walz signed a bill to provide $5 million in immediate, direct funding to Minnesota food shelves. The bill passed the House unanimously, and in the Senate the vote was 54-7. (Drazkowski cast one of the "no" votes.)
This lifeline for food shelves is crucial, because the increased SNAP benefits people received during the pandemic expired at the end of February. That means every SNAP-receiving household will have at least $95 less to spend on food each month. Some households will see their benefit drop by $250.
(Just FYI – Drazkowski's senate district, which includes Wabasha, Red Wing and St. Charles, is home to more than 1,700 households that receive SNAP benefits.)
You don't have to be a brilliant economist to predict that these cuts will send even more Minnesotans to places like Channel One, Second Harvest Heartland, Salvation Army and more than 400 other food shelves across the state. The record number of food shelf visits last year will likely be surpassed well before the snow starts falling next winter.
So, while the Legislature and Gov. Walz have taken an important step to ensure that Minnesota students won't go hungry, we can't behave as if our state's hunger problem has been solved. Minnesota has plenty of hungry adults, too. Nor can we assume that $5 million in emergency funding from the state will guarantee that food shelves remain well-stocked.
The fortunate among us should do our part, too. So, if the only “food insecurity” you experience is worrying that you won't get a table at your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, then we urge you to help. Write a check to Channel One – or better still, go to its website and set up an automatic monthly donation. It doesn't take much to make a big difference. A food shelf can turn $1.15 into four meals.
While Channel One no longer accepts non-perishable food donations from the public, it still accepts fresh produce. So, if you have little money but a very green thumb, why not plant an extra row of potatoes, sweet corn, peas or green beans? Or, at the very least, when you have the option to round up your grocery bill to help a food shelf, please hit “Yes.”
And, if you happen to live in Senate District 20 and have had to choose between buying food or paying the utility bill, then make a point of introducing yourself to Sen. Drazkowski whenever the opportunity arises. As an elected official, he needs to widen his social circle.