Walz and the Legislature are tackling hunger — a few tweaks could mean even more progress

February 6, 2023 6:00 am

Photo by Getty Images.

The late Sen. Paul Wellstone talked about public policy, electoral politics, and grassroots organizing as the ingredients for change that are “linked like the three legs of a stool.” Referring to that stool, Wellstone taught us that community organizing and electoral politics without a clear public policy agenda leads to a politics devoid of direction. In today’s increasingly divided political environment, where the two major parties see each other as the enemy, coming to an agreement on a public policy agenda at the national level is difficult, to say the least.

This does not seem to be an issue here in Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders have begun the 2023-24 biennium at breakneck speed, acknowledging the pent-up demand for meaningful action on the major challenges facing Minnesotans. Among these challenges is a pandemic- and inflation-driven increase in food insecurity throughout our state — especially in rural areas and within communities of color. 

As the new director of government affairs for Second Harvest Heartland, one of the nation’s largest hunger-relief organizations, I’m pleased to report that the governor and legislative leaders are recognizing this reality and have included efforts to combat hunger in their policy agenda. 

In their recently unveiled two-year budget proposal, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan funded school meals for all of Minnesota’s students, and they also included $45 million for food security to support hunger-relief organizations and connect Minnesotans with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Taken together with the proposals to cut taxes and lower the cost of housing, health care and child care for low-and middle-income Minnesotans, the Walz-Flanagan budget would have a profound impact on Minnesotans’ access to food.

Why is this so worthy of attention? One in six people — over 800,000 Minnesotans — living in Second Harvest Heartland’s service area reached out for food assistance in 2021. In 2022, Minnesota recorded more than 5.7 million food shelf visits, which is nearly 1.9 million more than the previous record set in 2020. 

The cost of groceries, gas, and rent reached historically high levels last year while pandemic-era financial and nutrition supports largely ended, leaving thousands of Minnesotans with few options to help keep food on their table. As Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole said recently, “If we can’t keep people fed, we won’t get much else right.” 

That is why Second Harvest Heartland has supported coalitions like Partners to End Hunger and the Hunger-Free Schools Campaign in advocating for many of the initiatives in the Walz-Flanagan budget. That budget includes significant one-time investments to bolster Minnesota’s emergency food network, and  they also included over $23 million in ongoing funds to help our state’s food shelves and Tribal Nations provide consistent services for their clients.

Yet there is even more we can do if we want to get serious about ending hunger together. We are advocating for a $4.4 million increase in funding for Minnesota’s Farm to Food Shelf program, which enables Minnesota’s network of Feeding America food banks, food shelves and meal programs to distribute millions of pounds of locally sourced produce, dairy and protein each year. We are working with Hunger Solutions Minnesota to seek an expedited $5 million in funding for food shelves to provide immediate relief after a year spent meeting historic levels of need without the government resources to match. And we have proposed $5 million for prepared meals for Minnesotans who do not have the health or home to cook the groceries our food bank offers. Delivered through Kitchen Coalition (formerly known as Minnesota Central Kitchen), this innovative initiative connects local restaurants and caterers with food banks to turn ingredients into nutritious, freshly prepared meals that are then distributed by trusted nonprofit organizations.

We will not end hunger in Minnesota in two years, but with a historic $17+ billion state budget surplus, there is no reason we cannot make major progress toward that goal. The Walz-Flanagan budget provides the clear public policy direction Minnesotans are looking for, including when it comes to food security. Second Harvest Heartland is committed to working with the administration and legislative leaders in both chambers — and from both parties — to ensure that critical investments in hunger relief are included in the final budget. 

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Zach Rodvold
Zach Rodvold

Zach Rodvold has worked in state and federal government, political campaigns and issue advocacy for more than 20 years, starting in the office of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. He served as state director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and later as director of external affairs for the DFL House caucus under former Speaker Paul Thissen. Most recently, Rodvold led the Minnesota office of U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, whose 2018 campaign he also managed. Rodvold joined Second Harvest Heartland as its director of Government Affairs in 2023.