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Valerie Castile celebrates passage of Minnesota school meals for all

After spending years donating money to erase student lunch debt, Valerie Castile looks forward to a day when no student or family struggles to pay for school meals.

MINNEAPOLIS — Valerie Castile received a special shout-out from Governor Tim Walz on Friday, just before he signed the bill that officially made Minnesota the fourth state to guarantee no-cost school meals for all students.

"My friend Valerie and Clarence (Castile) are here, they lost a son and a nephew and decided that, in memory of that, they were going to erase lunch debt for students to make sure that they could graduate and not have the shame of that," Walz said.

Castile has raised more than $200,000 to help pay off lunch debts in several schools in recent years. It's been a mission of hers since the death of her son, Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop.

Before his death, Philando Castile worked as a lunchroom supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School. "Mr. Phil the lunch man," as the students called him, was known for paying for the lunches of students who owed money, but his mother said he wasn't the one making it known.

"My son knew that it was important for those kids to have those meals, but he never came home and told me any of those things," Valerie Castile said. "He knew the significance of it, but he was just a humble, simple guy. You know, it was nothing to him, it was just the right thing to do. He'd say, 'These parents entrust their children with me every day. You know, they come into this lunchroom and they're my responsibility.'"

After Philando's death, Valerie made it her responsibility to keep that legacy alive. In addition to distributing checks to erase lunch debt, she also pushed for state and federal legislation to prevent lunch debt shaming by schools and helped fight to make Minnesota the fourth state to now offer universal meals for all students.

"We don't know the dynamics of everyone's family. We don't know if those two meals are the only two nutritious meals that they have per day. We don't know that. But we can do our part, and make sure that they get fed," Castile said.

"I never gave up. I knew... I know... anything is possible. Nothing is impossible," Valeria said when asked if she thought a bill like the one signed by Walz on Friday was possible. "It's the way that you go about it that makes things possible. Everybody just has to be on the same page."

"This is huge. Change is coming and change is good. The sun was shining too brightly this morning and I knew that was his spirit saying, 'Well done mom.'"

This isn't the end of Valerie's mission. She says she will continue to support kids and families in several ways.

Her mission to wipe out lunch debt isn't over either. Although the new legislation guarantees free meals for the next school year and beyond, it does not retroactively eliminate the outstanding lunch debt in school districts across the state right now.

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