In past 2 years, 33,000 in state joined federal subsidy program, many for the first time.
Across the noisy lunchrooms of Minnesota schools, there's a quiet but growing sign that the economy is taking a toll on families that have never needed help before.
More Minnesota students are signing on for free or reduced-price meals, as middle-class families coping with cutbacks and foreclosures are becoming first-time users of the subsidized National School Lunch Program.
Reflecting a surge seen nationally, nearly 33,000 Minnesota kids have joined the program in the past two years. Nationwide, student poverty rose from 59.3 percent in 2007 to 65.3 percent in 2010.
"Middle-class families who never thought they'd be dealing with this kind of hardship and poverty are now having to face it," said University of Minnesota economics Prof. Ben Senauer, who's researched several metro-area school districts' school lunch data. "This is the new face of poverty."
Low-income students now make up 37 percent of Minnesota's student population, according to state data -- 306,294 public school students in all. While rising poverty has been a common trend in urban schools like St. Paul, where 72 percent of students get subsidized meals, what surprises experts is how it has spread to suburban and exurban schools.
"What's been really stunning is it has been higher all across the state ... even in the places you wouldn't expect," said Deb Lukkonen, state school nutrition program supervisor. "It's alarming."
As a result, communities are stepping up to help kids -- even after the school day ends.
In Burnsville, teens fill backpacks with granola bars, applesauce and other snacks for needy elementary school children to eat over the weekend. In the Anoka-Hennepin district, every high school runs a food shelf so teens can easily stock up.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Boys & Girls Clubs have opened five kitchens so teens can get a hot dinner after school, and Target and Second Harvest Heartland deliver food to eight schools.
National policy changes
The surge in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals has sparked major federal policy changes in the past year. Children who are homeless, in migrant families or foster care, or in homes that receive food stamps now automatically receive certification for free school meals. That cuts the red tape that lengthens the process and discourages families from applying for help.
While policy changes may have resulted in more students qualifying for help, "the economy is the big thing" and the main reason for increased numbers, Lukkonen said.
Students apply for lunch help confidentially and there's no worry of standing out in lunch lines; everyone punches in a personal identification number.
Free meals go to those with an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. Reduced-price meals, which cost no more than 40 cents each, go to households between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line, an income no higher than $41,348 for a family of four.
As more families find themselves falling within those ranges, schools receive more state and federal reimbursements. In turn, the 65-year-old National School Lunch Program's budget has ballooned from $6.1 billion in 2000 to $10.8 billion last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hitting the suburbs
The spread of poverty to the suburbs wasn't obvious at first to Fay Finn.
Finn, youth service specialist at Burnsville High School, was planning volunteer projects two years ago when it hit her: They didn't need to send food overseas. Poverty was growing in their own backyard.
Since 2006, the number of students receiving free or reduced-price meals in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district schools has jumped from 26 to 40 percent.
"I was appalled," Finn said.
Through donations and small grants, Finn has raised $25,000 annually since the fall of 2009. The funds are used to fill backpacks with soup, oatmeal and snacks to keep low-income elementary kids fed over the weekend.
Each Friday afternoon, 189 kids pick up their "Brainpower in a Backpack." For some, it's the only food they'll get until Monday.
Finn doesn't need to look at two waiting lists to know that the need extends beyond her budget.
"It's a challenge," she said. "There are people who are getting backpacks of food that never would have expected to three years ago."
An hour north in rural Buffalo schools, the scene is the same. Poverty numbers were static until 2005. Since then, the number of low-income students has jumped 10 percent, making up nearly a third of all students.
Even affluent suburbs are seeing the number of low-income students grow. In Wayzata, there's been a 5 percent increase since 2005. The Roseville schools' low-income population has spiked to nearly 40 percent, up 12 percent since 2005. Elk River's numbers nearly doubled to24 percent.
The need has become so great in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, that every high school has its own food shelf. Staffers at Jackson Middle School are starting one in a storage closet.
Younger kids may never know their parents enrolled them in free or reduced-price meals, but it's clear to staffers like Kay Fecke. The principal of Burnsville's Sky Oaks Elementary watched one Friday afternoon as a boy picked up his snack backpack, eagerly sneaking a peak inside. He dug out a pudding cup. His face lit up and he hugged it in delight.
"It still brings tears to my eyes," Fecke said. "These kids are just so grateful."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141