ST. PAUL, Minn. -- New data from the Minnesota Department of Education show a growing number of students rely on the federally funded National School Lunch Program. The numbers have school officials looking for ways to ensure that children are well-fed and able to learn -- even outside school hours.
The evidence of increased need "reflects the severe financial hardship that so many Minnesota families are facing," University of Minnesota economics professor Ben Senauer said.
"In particular, it reflects the depth, the breadth, and the duration of what we have just been through," said Senauer, co-author of "Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization."
More than 37 percent of children in Minnesota public schools can't afford to pay for lunch.
That's more than 310,000 students, and a 1.8 percent increase compared to the 2010-11 school year. The number of children on the program has jumped close to 14 percent since the fall of 2008 -- a period in which statewide enrollment in Minnesota schools has remained mostly flat.
Senauer is also concerned about a shift in the numbers, from reduced to free meals in the last three years, a change he said speaks to how hard the economic downturn has hit families.
"The level of economic hardship became more severe." Senauer said.
While the number of students on reduced-price meals in Minnesota has fallen since the 2008-09 school year, from 65,997 to 61,935, the number of students receiving free meals grew in the same period from 207,576 to 249,936.
To qualify for free meals, a student's family income must be at or below 130 percent of poverty, or $29,055 for a family of four. To qualify for reduced meals, a family's income must be at or below 185 percent of poverty, or $41,348 for a family of four.
Senauer was surprised to see increases in free and reduced lunch enrollment even in parts of the state that have strong farm economies.
"I thought when we looked at rural Minnesota, particularly when we go down the southern part of the state where agriculture is so important to the economy, I thought places like Luverne and Faribault, we wouldn't see these trends... we've seen the increase there, too."
In the Roseville Area Schools, for example, the number of students on the free or reduced-price lunch program is up 24.7 percent since 2008.
Watching students at Edgerton Elementary School line up for lunch, a visitor can't tell which kids get free lunch, and which don't. After picking up their trays, they simply punch a code into a small computer.
But Roseville nutrition director Susan Richardson understands what's going on behind the scenes. While demographic changes account for some of the increase in the district, she also now sees middle class families who have never sought help walking through her office door.
"It's usually the mothers. Because I don't think the fathers want to see us face to face," she said. "They can hardly fill out the form because it's so emotional for them."
Many have lost jobs. They often wait until there is little other choice.
"For a few months, they dip into savings, they cut back on costs. But when it gets into six months and a year, they are forced to seek help," she said.
Richardson suspects some families still aren't enrolled simply because they don't want to admit they need free lunch.
But the growing need concerns school officials in many districts, because research shows kids learn better when they're not hungry. Some studies suggest hungry kids score lower on math, and are more likely to repeat a grade.
That dilemma has school counselors and lunchroom staff watching carefully for signs that family situations have changed -- and looking for ways to help students get the nutrition they need even outside school hours.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District -- the state's largest - has seen the number of students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program grow more slowly than other districts. Still, nearly 12,000 students now receive free or reduced lunch. That's up almost 16 percent since the fall of 2008. Currently, 31 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch in the district.
At the district's Champlin Park High School, counselor Amy Harnack says cafeteria and other staff watch for clues that kids need help.
"Over time, the bill is not being paid, or kitchen staff notice [students] aren't eating, or they're eating off other kids plates, or might be taking something out of the garbage," she said.
Getting families on free lunch is the easy part, she says. Recently, she heard another concern: "It was suppers and breaks from school. That's where mothers started calling and saying -- can you help with food?"
So last year the school started a food shelf: Easy-to-fix meals, all provided through donations. Students can pick out food during their free time, and leave it with Harnack until the end of the day.
"There are some kids who just do not want people to know that their families are struggling," she said. "But they're cognizant enough to know to come and get supper tonight."
All high schools and half the middle schools in Anoka-Hennepin now have food shelves. Other districts are also helping kids outside the lunchroom, including over the summer. Harnack plans to keep her school's food shelf open after the school year is over, for example.
"Last summer, the last day of school I had a ton of kids in here just clearing out everything I had. Because they knew that school wouldn't be starting until September. They were just grabbing green beans and carrots and just anything," she said.
Harnack has heard the economy is getting better, but she says need is still growing. Champlin Park High School has more homeless kids now than at the end of last year, she said.
But University of Minnesota economist Ben Senauer predicts less hardship next year.
"When we have a chance to look at these numbers next year, I anticipate we're going to start to see declines in that free and reduced category. And that's good news, because it reflects on the financial situation of American families," he said.