Valerie Castile poses for a portrait in her home before the signing of the bill to provide free school meals to Minnesota children. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Valerie Castile did not know how much her son cared about feeding children, until he was killed.

“I found out through others he would pay for lunches out of his own pocket,” she said.

Philando Castile, Valerie Castile’s son, was 32 years old in 2016, when a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed him during a traffic stop. The following year, a Ramsey County jury acquitted the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of manslaughter charges. Philando’s violent death shook the community—especially the elementary students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, where Philando was a school cafeteria manager. 

That tragedy has changed Valerie Castile’s life every day since then. In the years since Philando was killed, she has poured her energy into activism, wiping out school lunch debt and pushing for free school meals. This week, her advocacy hit a high point: The state Legislature passed a bill to provide free breakfast and lunch to all schoolchildren. Minnesota kids will no longer have lunch debt.

After Philando’s death, colleagues, students, and school parents told media outlets that Philando was a beloved member of the school community who knew all the students’ names and food allergies. He made sure kids could eat even if they could not pay for their meals.

One student told Valerie Castile a story that stuck with her: “At lunchtime he went and sat at a table by himself, and there were some other guys sitting at a different table,” she recalled. “Philando walked over to him: Come here and sit with these guys.” The student cried as he told her this story, she said. “He said that Philando helped him make friends.”

Through the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, she has raised $200,000 to forgive lunch debt at schools in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Osseo, Brooklyn Center, Roseville, Robbinsdale, and more. “Lunch debt” occurs when a student cannot pay for school meals and owes the school money. She’s received recognition in local and national media for her efforts.

In February, the Philando Castile Relief Foundation presented a $15,000 check to Central Park Elementary School in Roseville for lunch debt relief. State Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten (DFL–St. Paul), a Central Park Elementary alumna, attended. 

Oumou Verbeten spoke in remembrance of Philando on the Senate floor Tuesday, as the Legislature considered a bill to pay for breakfast and lunch for all Minnesota public school students.

“He was a beloved member of our community because he was known as the lunch man, or Mr. Phil, at J.J. Hill,” Oumou Verbeten said. “He knew every student’s name and he never let any of his kids go hungry. He would always make sure that they had a meal. I think today we have an opportunity to step up as a state, so that it’s not on those individual nutrition staff….It’s really on us to make sure that our students are fed and they have those meals in school.”

That day, the Senate passed the bill on a 38–26 bipartisan vote. Governor Tim Walz signed it Friday.

Valerie Castile watched as Governor Tim Walz signed the bill to provide free school meals at Webster Elementary School in Minneapolis. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Valerie Castile was at the Capitol on Tuesday to watch the debate and vote.

“It was amazing,” she told Sahan Journal. “I am over the moon.”

We spoke with Castile afterward about her advocacy for school meals, the impact of this bill, and what’s next for her foundation. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been advocating around this issue for a long time. It was obviously very important to your son. Can you walk me through how you got involved and the work you’ve done?

In honor of my son, I created the Philando Castile Relief Foundation. We help families that lose loved ones to gun violence. We reduce the negative lunch balance within the school districts. 

In 2017, we did a Philando Feeds the Children campaign. We were able to pay off St. Paul’s lunch debt. All our surrounding schools were having the same issue. So I figured the best way to honor his legacy was to do the things that he felt near and dear to his heart, which was helping families and children. Philando didn’t have any biological children. Those children at the school were his children.

I just was compelled and I followed that little voice. I say it’s God, other people may see it differently. But I was listening to God and the spirit of my son, and we just started helping people.

I spoke with Governor [Mark] Dayton about the lunch debt before he left office, and of course I spoke with Governor Walz about it, as well. And I was really, really happy that he created the bill. Last year, he said it didn’t go anywhere. So they revisited it this year. 

[Paying for school meals] is a financial hardship for our families with the pandemic being in play, and then inflation coming along. The time is right to just do the right thing.

I know that some of the legislators made statements like our kids are not reading at the level they should. Maybe that’s due to them being hungry, you know? If our kids are fed adequately, maybe they will do better in school. 

The last couple of years—not this year, but the two years before that with the pandemic—school meals were free. What did you think about that, and how did that change your work?

I thought that was awesome. We kept supporting people. During Thanksgiving we give turkeys and food gift cards. At Christmas we do Adopt-a-Family, and we grant people $50 a child. When these guys and gals are killed by gun violence, the majority of them leave dependent children behind and someone has to care for those children. So we kind of pick up the pieces with that, especially around the holidays. 

It’s trying to do something to help relieve some of that anxiety. Holidays are full of stress and anxiety anyway, and then you have to mourn a person. It’s really sad during holidays, and that empty chair is there.

So if there is no more school lunch debt in Minnesota, what does that mean for your work?

I’m certainly going to reevaluate things and do something for single moms. Create an avenue where we can help them navigate through life and ultimately, maybe get some type of certificate or two-year degree so they can become employable. Get off of welfare and get some type of housing, moving in that direction. 

Philando loved his family and his friends. The children were his heart. I think helping single moms would really bring out what he’d like to do.

What do you think it means for your son’s legacy to have this bill pass?

I’m just ecstatic that they were actually listening. This is something that was needed. It’s not a handout, it’s an investment. You’re investing in Minnesota’s children. 

When the teacher’s at the blackboard making a zero, the zero’s starting to look like a donut. Some adults can’t get going until they have their cup of coffee. Don’t think for one second that not having breakfast does not affect kids. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And my son had the good sense to know that.

Philando had a big impact on a lot of people. He changed the course of so many people’s lives. People changed their career paths. His friends that were involved in gangs became great husbands, great fathers, professional people. They really turned their lives around.

What were you thinking about as you saw the votes come in and you saw the debate on the Senate floor?

I was watching the numbers. It was just amazing to watch that.

But I felt pretty confident today. Getting up this morning to go, I just had a really good vibe. The sun was out. That’s how I know my son is hanging around, because the sun shines incredibly bright. And it did today.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...