The Minnesota state Senate debated a bill this week to provide kids with free school breakfast and lunch, and if you're thinking, "That sounds like an opportunity for a Republican to distinguish himself in the worst way possible," you are correct.
"Mr. President, 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," state Sen. Steve Drazkowski said. "Now, I should say that hunger is a relative term, Mr. President. You know? I had a cereal bar for breakfast. I guess I'm hungry now. That to some might be, maybe that's the definition in the bill. I don't know, I didn't see a definition of hunger in the bill, Mr. President. But I think most reasonable people suggest hunger means you don't have enough to eat in order to provide for metabolism and growth."
First off, the idea of standing up in public, as an elected representative, and mocking the idea that there is true hunger in your state by talking about the cereal bar you ate for breakfast is abhorrent. Facts exist, and they contradict his dismissal of hunger in Minnesota schools—not just any dismissal, but a snide, insulting one. This is just a bad person, and he really wants us to know it.
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But beyond that, if you've never met a person who doesn't have access to enough food to eat, that's a statement about who you are meeting, and in the case of a politician, it says you're not bothering to reach out to your most vulnerable constituents. Minnesota is a relatively low-poverty state and Drazkowski does appear to represent counties with lower poverty rates than the state as a whole. Nonetheless, he is broadcasting that he doubts the existence, essentially, of somewhere in the neighborhood of 8% of his constituents.
One in six people in Minnesota experienced food insecurity in 2021. That's 483,000 people. One in 11 kids experienced food insecurity. That's around two kids per classroom, on average. It’s likely less in Drazkowski's district, but we're still talking about hungry children. The problem hasn't gone away, either: In November, Minnesota Public Radio reported on multiple nonprofit organizations seeing increased need for help with food, and following the end of universal free school meals passed in COVID-19 relief bills, schools nationwide are reporting more hungry students.
"Kids should not go hungry" is a statement I'm confident making on its own terms, but it is also concretely, measurably an education issue: One 2013 study found that kids with regular access to breakfast have better scores on math tests.
One Democratic Minnesota state senator made just that point. "Feeding kids at school is the right thing to do," said Sen. Heather Gustafson. "Being hungry makes learning almost impossible. There is no worksheet or assignment, test or project that will matter to a student who hasn't had anything to eat."
The good news is that the free school meals bill passed the Minnesota Senate, with even some Republicans joining in. And Gustafson noted that it would be a benefit to all families with kids in the public schools, calling it an $1,800 a year (for a family with two kids) "lunchbox tax cut."
So Drazkowski's callous dismissal of the reality of kids going to school hungry didn't carry the day. But unfortunately that kind of attitude is more common than not among Republican lawmakers, with a range of attacks on food assistance for hungry people expanding by the day.
Progressives have had tremendous success passing all sorts of reforms at the ballot box in recent years, including measures that have expanded Medicaid, increased the minimum wage, and created independent redistricting commissions. How have Republicans responded? By making it harder to qualify measures for the ballot.
Daily Kos Elections' own Stephen Wolf joins us on this week's episode of The Downballot for a deep dive on the GOP's war on ballot initiatives, which includes burdensome signature requirements that disproportionately impact liberals; ramping up the threshold for passage for citizen-backed measures but not those referred by legislatures; and simply repealing voter-passed laws Republicans don't like. But Republican power is not unfettered, and Stephen explains how progressives can fight back by defeating efforts to curtail ballot measures—many of which voters themselves would first have to approve.