Below is an op-ed piece written by Jason Viana, Executive Director of The Open Door, for Sun ThisWeek.
A Minnesota legislative hearing recently made national news when State Senator Steve Drazkowski spoke out against a bill guaranteeing free school meals for all. “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.”
As the Executive Director of the largest food shelf in Dakota County (a portion of which rests In Senator Drazkowski’s district), hearing the comments from the Senator made me sad. It made me sad that this elected official hasn’t taken the time to get to know people from all parts of his district.
“I haven’t eaten today” is not usually the way any of us starts a conversation, especially with our elected officials. It takes vulnerability to admit to needing help, especially to someone in a respected position of power.
What is hunger? Hunger is consistently lacking access to enough food to live a healthy life. There are an estimated 80,000 people in Dakota County who struggle to both have enough food for their household AND meet the rest of their basic needs.
So yeah, many people we would consider “hungry” have probably eaten today. They just haven’t figured out how to make rent this month.
Hunger in the suburbs and in our rural communities is often not visible at first glance. We often see what we want to see, or at least what we expect to see – and most people don’t expect to see poverty in suburban and rural Minnesota. Many mistakenly believe that poverty is “just in the cities” or isolated to urban areas, but that is just not the case – and Senator Drazkowski’s remarks only serve to reinforce harmful myths and make it harder for his constituents to come forward with their concerns.
I speak to groups all across our community about the work of The Open Door and our efforts to make fresh and healthy food more accessible for people across Dakota County. The most common response I hear from audiences is “I had no idea there were that many people living (in Dakota County) that needed help making ends meet!”
If you are a single parent with one child living in Dakota County, you need to make more than $35 an hour to meet basic needs, and a married couple with 2 kids needs to each make more than $26 an hour to make their budget whole. Strikingly, 40% of jobs in Dakota County don’t meet that threshold. More than 40,000 households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, leaving less to meet their basic needs.
The volunteers and staff at The Open Door find ways to make food available to more than 17,000 people in Dakota County each month. I invite any who are skeptical of the local need to come and join us in an elementary school gym in Apple Valley, or in a senior-living community in Lakeville, or in our Eagan food pantry, and see for yourself what hunger looks like.
I think you will figure out why it is so hard to see – it’s because it looks just like you and me.
Hunger doesn’t always come attached to a cardboard sign, it doesn’t always come pushing a grocery cart down a city sidewalk, and it doesn’t always come in visible and obvious ways. Hunger in our community looks a lot like each of us.
Executive Director of The Open Door