The Legislature can do more to address hunger

April 18, 2023 6:00 am

In the recent Minnesota Food Shelf Survey, fresh produce and proteins tied for the most in-demand items, with dairy and eggs a close second. Getty Images.

As one of my first orders of business as the new director of government affairs for Second Harvest Heartland, I took to these pages in early February to express our enthusiasm for some of the big-ticket items moving through the Legislature, as well as our disappointment that those investments alone would not be enough in the face of record rates of food insecurity in Minnesota.

Two months later, with budget bills making their way through the House and Senate, we remain concerned that our elected leaders are missing an opportunity to make some relatively small but meaningful investments in hunger relief despite a $17 billion budget surplus.

There is no question that the passage of universal school meals is a huge win for those working to end hunger in Minnesota, and Second Harvest Heartland was proud to be a part of the coalition co-led by Hunger Solutions Minnesota to get it passed and signed into law. As our CEO Allison O’Toole said at the time, this is a game-changer for Minnesota kids.

This isn’t the only way in which Gov. Tim Walz and legislators are tackling food insecurity and its root causes. The $5 million in emergency relief for our state’s food shelves was desperately needed to begin filling the gaps left by the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed state child tax credit, investments in housing and rental assistance, and efforts to expand healthcare coverage and affordability would all help keep Minnesotans from going hungry.

Still, as one of the largest food banks in the country and the provider of over 94% of the food distributed by a network of more than 1,500 food shelves and partner programs, our role in ending hunger in Minnesota has either been misunderstood, undervalued or overlooked by lawmakers so far this session, perhaps due to a misperception that we already have all the resources we need to get the job done.

We do not. Which is why we came to the Legislature with a request for $10 million per year to support our state’s Farm to Food Shelf program and the work of prepared meals initiatives like the Kitchen Coalition. This is a miniscule dollar amount in a state budget totaling well over $55 billion and a record surplus of $17 billion, but one that would have a big impact on our network of food banks and prepared meal providers’ ability to serve our neighbors in need.

Why is this funding so important? In the recently released Minnesota Food Shelf Survey, which outlines the critical role that these agencies and programs play in keeping Minnesotans from going hungry, fresh produce and proteins tied for the most in-demand items, with dairy and eggs a close second. Despite their importance, those surveyed shared that these items were available about half the time. The Farm to Food Shelf program is specifically designed to source available produce, protein and dairy from Minnesota farmers and get it directly to those who need it the most. Without additional funding, too many will continue to go without (again, despite a historic budget surplus).

In our view, part of the reason these hunger-fighting initiatives have so far been underfunded is that the budget target set for the Agriculture Committee was too low. That is why we are working with a broad coalition of food, agriculture and hunger organizations to advocate for an increase of $110 million, compared to the agreed-to amount of $48 million, to help support Minnesota farmers and ensure the food they grow gets to the people who need it most. While it may sound like a lot, $110 million represents just 0.6% of the total available surplus, even though agriculture accounts for more than $100 billion in annual economic activity in Minnesota.

We remain hopeful that our proposed investments in hunger relief will be prioritized when legislators and the Walz administration work out the final details of what will be a transformational state budget.

Almost everyone knows that far too many people in Minnesota are going hungry, as food costs remain high and emergency federal food supports have dried up.

We can end hunger in Minnesota, but we cannot leave it to goodwill and charity alone. We need the governor and the Legislature to continue to lead — and we will cheer them on every step of the way.

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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.