Longtime Hunger Solutions leader reflects on 20 years of advocacy as retirement approaches

At the Open Cupboard Food Shelf in Oakdale, Colleen Moriarty isn't a name people recognize. However, for more than 20 years, she’s been the executive director of the non-profit Hunger Solutions, and through public policy at the capitol, has been working to improve access to food for countless people across the state.

"When I started there, there was still this kind of way people were treated at a food shelf, you got whatever they had," says Moriarty. "Now to go to a food shelf… It’s really a more dignified experience, and it’s a much healthier experience."

That’s just one of the list of anti-hunger related changes Moriarty’s fingerprints have been on over two decades. Preparing for retirement on March 1, Moriarty reflects back. She was born into a politically active, Democratic Irish Catholic family. Her father was a district court judge in Shakopee.

"I had to write a paper after I went to protest against the war in Vietnam. My dad wanted a one-page report on what I had learned," says Moriarty.

She went on to work on a handful of campaigns. Served as chief of staff for former Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and learned during her one term on the Minneapolis Public School Board that she was better suited to be behind the scenes.  After being recruited to the executive director position at Hunger Solutions, she led a bill to eliminate lunch shaming, implemented the only statewide hunger relief helpline, and earned national awards.

By far, Moriarty is most proud of the free school meals for all passed by lawmakers last year.  This was her main goal for 17 years.

"I think it’s a drop-the-mic moment. It was like bam, that was my hope, wish, dream, and I was willing to work really hard to get it done," said Moriarty. "People used to say to my staff members ‘Can you get her to stop talking about that? It’s never going to happen. Because the price tag is big, and the belief system had to accompany that.' They would laugh and say ‘No, we’ll never get her to stop talking about it.’"

"I was really committed to finding a way to eliminate all the shame and the stress that came with [not] having a lunch at school. This was the way to do it and oh my gosh, it is so popular," Moriarty continued. 

So popular, in fact, September data from schools showed almost 16 million free meals served, and the projected $400 million budget over two years needs a new budget of $481 million.

Republicans continue to criticize the costs, believing the state shouldn't be subsidizing families who can afford to pay for meals. However, Morarity is quick to point out four GOP senators joined Democrats to get free school meals for all passed.

"It makes me teary, so many people worked together to get it done," Moriarty said. 

As Moriarty will retire partway through the upcoming session, it was announced just a few days ago. Instead of Hunger Solutions looking for her replacement, it will merge with another nonprofit, The Food Group.

"The Food Group has incredible strengths in the community, in equity programs, in BIPOC farming, has a farm, and has a food bank," says Moriarty. "The movement they’ve created is missing one thing: public policy that works. So our organizations are going to merge with them. It will be a small part."

Jessica Francis, executive director at Open Cupboard, applauds the change and says knowing Moriarty for two decades, she's learned a lot. "The tenacity of staying focused on who needs us, and what they need, and we are going to get it done," says Francis. "That’s a huge lesson that I learned from her."

And while she’ll be spending more time with her growing family and dog, Moriarty looks forward to retirement and spring outside the capitol walls.

"I’m way over being a lounge lizard hanging around until 2 in the morning," laughs Moriarty. "I’m 71, that’s enough. I’m ready to be home in my jammies at that point."