The cafeteria at Woodcrest Elementary School in Fridley filled with the clatter of trays and children's voices on Thursday. Over about an hour, 134 kids dropped in for cheeseburgers, chips and fruit.

This is the second year that the Spring Lake Park school district, Woodcrest's home, has been in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program. Participation in the program has more than doubled.

The district's experience reflects a trend in Minnesota: Schools are planning for growing numbers in the summer lunch program, and new sites are opening, primarily in the suburbs and outstate.

From the summer of 2006 through last summer, the number of meals served in Minnesota through the program increased by more than 78 percent, to nearly 2 million, according to figures from the Minnesota Department of Education.

This year, the number of sites statewide is increasing from 538 to nearly 600. Many are in areas where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year; often, the summer lunches are open to any kid, 1 to 18, regardless of family income.

In many ways, Minnesota is faring better than other states. A national study, comparing July 2009 with July 2010, found that several states lost a big percentage of sites, often because of cuts to summer educational and recreational programs. In that time, the number of sites in Minnesota rose 11.7 percent, according to the study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). There were declines of 34 percent in Missouri and 53 percent in Hawaii.

Part of broader efforts

Many Minnesota school districts are beefing up summer academic and recreation programs and providing meals as a part of that, said Jenny Butcher, Summer Food Service coordinator for the state Department of Education. New programs are starting this month in Westonka, White Bear Lake, Pine City, Big Lake, Mankato, Grand Portage and elsewhere.

"Districts want to bring the children up to their grade level, and they're providing educational opportunities in the summer so there's not that learning gap," Butcher said. "Hungry kids can't learn, so they kind of go hand in hand."

In many places, she said, the meals kids continue to get at school or at the park may be the only nutritious ones they get.

To reach kids, Alexandra has a food truck that will deliver meals to where they are. Hopkins and Minneapolis are looking at doing so next year.

Still, the FRAC study found that Minnesota served only about 14 percent of kids whose family income would make them eligible for free lunches. Butcher said with the whole summer in mind, she'd bump that figure to about 20 percent.

School districts and other sponsors are making use of grants from Second Harvest Heartland and the Minnesota Vikings' Children's Fund to market their programs. In Spring Lake Park, food service director Amy Kimmel said she used part of a $1,500 grant to make fliers that were handed out at the Tower Days parade.

At Woodcrest, Joey Bergdahl was visiting for the first time with his son, Dewey, 8, during a break in the boy's summer rec program nearby at Able Park. Dewey's buddy Tyler Trombley was there too, with his mom, Kristi. She said she first learned of the program from the district website last year. This year, she called to make sure it was still running.

It's an open program, so lunch ladies at the school make fresh food daily for any kid in the district who shows up. At about 12:30 p.m. Thursday, four families and several groups of teenagers lingered.

"I thought it was too good to be true," Bergdahl said.

The addition of a week's worth of lunches will offer some wiggle room in the family's budget. "Obviously, it'll help out quite a bit," he said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409