Photo: Rep. Phyllis Kahn, foreground, grabs a turkey burger served up by, from left, Sen. David Tomassoni, Rep. Jeff Backer, Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt. More photos are in this gallery.

Tuesday's turkey burger grillout on the State Capitol lawn was about more than just a tasty free lunch.

In the wake of continuing devastation from the avian flu that has claimed more than 5.3 million Minnesota birds--most of them turkeys--Willmar Rep. Dave Baker and the House rural caucus led a 600-burger cookout that drew not just lawmakers, state employees and a burger-flipping Gov. Mark Dayton, but also others who made the trip to support Minnesota’s turkey industry.

“It touches my heart. I know it’s affecting a lot of families, so to see all these people supporting us is just amazing,” said Marisa Bocanegra, who traveled from Faribault with her 12-year-old daughter Jasmin Nisbit. Jasmin clutched a handmade sign that thanked midday diners for their support. Her dad, Brian Nisbit, is a quality assurance supervisor at the Jennie-O Turkey Store, which said Tuesday that the bird flu has forced them to cut production and temporarily lay off 233 workers. Bocanegra said her husband is the family’s only source of income, and whether he’ll be among the idled workers remains to be seen.

It’s why Baker, a first-term Republican lawmaker, said the cookout was important.

“Today was really a big day,” he said of the Jennie-O announcement, but added that he is optimistic the industry will recover. As part of its agriculture omnibus bill, the House on Monday passed an additional $6 million to the state’s response efforts, including bolstering unemployment for affected workers.

“Through this whole tragedy that we’re going through, the industry will be stronger and be able to deal with these kind of things in the future with better biosecurity, better plans of responding, so this has been a wake-up call," he said. "I’m so proud of the state House, the Senate, the governor, how everyone has responded to their needs.”

Solidarity aside, the burgers—served with pickles, an option of spicy cheese or cranberry mayo—weren’t half bad either.

“I love it,” Richard Stephens, a retired school district employee from Cottage Grove and the son of turkey farmers, said between the final bites of his burger. The flu, he said, would never scare him from his favorite treat.

“I could eat it 24-7.”

Below: Marisa Bocanegra and daughter Jasmin Nisbit, 12, of Faribault, turned out to show support.

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