Valerie Castile didn't know how much her son Philando 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 was 32 when a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed him during a traffic stop in 2016. His death shook the community — especially the elementary students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, where he had been a cafeteria manager.

In the years since Philando's death, Valerie Castile has poured her energy into wiping out school lunch debt and pushing for free school meals. This month, her advocacy paid off when Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill providing for free school meals for every student in Minnesota's public and charter schools, eliminating lunch debt that occurs when a student can't pay for meals.

Castile was at the State Capitol to watch debate on the bill and the vote in the Senate. "It was amazing," she said. "I am over the moon."

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. She's received recognition in local and national media for her efforts.

The foundation presented a $15,000 check in February to Central Park Elementary School in Roseville for lunch debt relief. Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul and a Central Park graduate, attended. She spoke about Philando Castile during debate on the bill.

"He was a beloved member of our community because he was known as the lunch man, or Mr. Phil, at J.J. Hill," 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."

Sahan Journal spoke with Valerie Castile after the Senate approved the bill on March 14 about her advocacy for school meals, the impact of the new law and what's next for her foundation. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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 spoke with Gov. [Mark] Dayton about the lunch debt before he left office, and of course I spoke with Gov. 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 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 passed and signed?

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 [to a hungry student]. 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.

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. Getting up, 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.