ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - A Minnesota State Senator drew national media coverage and widespread criticism after saying he never met a person who says they "don’t have access to enough food to eat," despite data indicating that food insecurity is a growing problem across the state.
Sen. Steve Drazkowski (R-20) made the remarks Tuesday during a debate for a bill giving all students in Minnesota access to free lunches and breakfasts.
"I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry, yet today. I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don't have access to enough food to eat," he said.
Drazkowski went on to say that hunger is a "relative term," adding he ate a cereal bar for breakfast. "Guess I’m hungry now," he said.
However, according to a February report from Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to reduce hunger, visits to food shelves in Minnesota rose dramatically last year, reaching a record high of 5,505,100 visits, which was nearly 2 million more than in 2021, and about 1.7 million more than the previous record set in 2020.
Food shelves report their visit totals annually to Hunger Solutions, which verifies the numbers along with the state.
Hunger Solutions Executive Director Colleen Moriarty told FOX 9 she thinks Drazkowski isn’t paying enough attention to the issue.
"Obviously his eyes aren't open. His eyes aren't open to his local community, to senior centers, to the grocery store, to faith communities that all bind together to help people in need. And if he can't see that, then he's not looking," Moriarty told FOX 9.
Moriarty said the main factors driving the rise of food insecurity in Minnesota are inflation and rising food prices, coupled with the ending of pandemic emergency assistance programs. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that during 2022, food prices rose 12.2% in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area.
"It's the same thing that's driving it throughout the country. Inflation and the fact that wages can't keep up with that. So people have the same needs or greater with less resources," Moriarty said.
On Friday, Sen. Drazkowski released the following statement:
"Minnesota already has numerous resources to help kids and families get food on their tables and in their lunch boxes. Volunteers and non-profits are already stepping up at hundreds of food shelves around our state to meet the needs of their own communities.
"We in live in a time in history where we have the safest, cheapest, and most abundant food supply in the history of the world. The number of government programs already in place to make certain that kids and adults have food in our state is many. Every kid in school that wants breakfast or lunch gets it. Currently that means that 40% of the population of kids who qualify for Medicaid, and whose families are up to 200% of federal poverty guidelines, gets school breakfast and lunch. Every family that qualifies for the generous taxpayer-funded food-bearing EBT cards gets them. These are just some of the reasons that kids are not going hungry.
"In the aftermath of the Minnesota Department of Education squandering up to $500 million in the Feeding our Future fraud scandal, Minnesota Democrats now want to give the same agency an additional $425 million to pay for the school lunches of those kids whose families are already paying for them. This is nothing more than their socialist effort to make Minnesotans dependent upon government. Minnesota’s socialist party doesn’t want our citizens to aspire to personal responsibility for themselves or their families. They want them all enrolled in government."
Sen. Drazkowski’s district covers all of Wabasha County, large parts of Goodhue County, Winona County, Olmsted County, and a smaller part of Dakota County.
Feeding America, a nonprofit that runs a network of food banks across the country and tracks food insecurity, estimates there are approximately 48,560 people experiencing food insecurity in those Minnesota counties.
Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health indicate that in those same counties, nearly 30% of students, or 32,871 children, are eligible for the state's current free or reduced lunch program.
The program is expected to cost about $200 million a year. Republicans criticized the recent proposal for paying for student meals whose families could afford to cover the cost themselves.
The bill passed the Senate 38-26. Since it contains revisions from the version that passed the House, it must now go back to the House for a concurring vote, which is expected to occur Thursday, clearing the way for Governor Tim Walz to sign it into law on Friday.