Low-income Minnesotans are skipping meals not just because they can't afford them but because they're not tapping available food shelves, food stamps and meals programs, according to a study released Monday.

The study found that there's a gap between food opportunities and the number of meals that low-income Minnesotans get from government and charities. To be sure, more and more people are using food shelves. But there are tens of thousands more who are eligible but not seeking aid.

"For example, only 25 percent of our elderly people eligible for food stamps are enrolled in the program,'' said Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland, the Maplewood-based food bank that commissioned the study. "About 10 to 15 percent of the children eligible for summer meals programs are enrolled.''

Zeaske said that many Minnesotans either don't know about the programs or are reluctant to apply.

"Minnesotans who are hungry often want to remain invisible,'' he said.

The research showed that 125 million meals are skipped every year in Minnesota by low-income residents who could get help putting food on the table.

It found that most meals consumed by low-income residents, 61 percent, were purchased with their own money. About 22 percent came from government assistance programs.

Francisca Quinones, who on Monday visited the food shelf at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul, may be among the underserved. She said her husband's construction work dried up last month and they have very little income. She just started shopping at the food shelf but had never thought about food stamps or reduced-cost meals programs.

"This really helps so we don't have to buy everything on our own,'' said Quinones, pushing an orange shopping cart through the aisles of the tiny food shelf store.

The Neighborhood House food shelf saw a 23 percent increase in demand for food from December 2007 to December 2008, said Cindi Yang, its director. Yang said the Second Harvest study is an important reminder that food shelf clients may need to be steered to other food services.

Second Harvest launched its study to try to get a different look at hunger in Minnesota, not just the number of people relying on food shelves or getting food stamps. The figures, from 2007, are estimates.

The research looked at the number of Minnesotans earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $33,000 for a family of three) and the total meals they would need for a year. It then subtracted the number of meals they could provide for their family (based on $35.89 per person per week) and the amount of food that charities and government distributed that year. The University of Minnesota Food Industry Center helped set up the study, Zeaske said.

It found that Carver County had the greatest gap in the metro area between meals needed and meals provided; 14 percent of its eligible residents had skipped a meal. That figure in other metro counties ranged from 10 to 13 percent.

Now that the gap has been documented, Second Harvest intends to work with other anti-hunger groups to better connect needy families with food programs.

Said Zeaske: "Clearly there is work to be done to improve our own ability to get more food into the hands of the hungry.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511