A few days before winter break, a Chaska High School student was desperate: He and his family didn't have enough food. His counselor led him to the Chaska High School food shelf, a small room in the school lined with hundreds of necessities, including cans of beans, pasta boxes and personal hygiene products.

The Hawk Haul food shelf serves students in emergency situations and those who need weekly pickups. Between the high school and the district's alternative high school program, Integrated Arts Academy, there are 25 students who rely on it weekly. Another 10 to 20 students drop in for supplies and food on an as-needed basis, including those who are in emergency situations, said Jeri Lovett, an English teacher who is heading up the high school's Student Care Team.

Though people might not associate hunger issues with the sprawling housing developments in the suburbs, the need is still there, Lovett said. Only one food pantry, Bountiful Basket Food Shelf, works with the Eastern Carver County cities of Chaska, Chanhassen, Victoria and Carver, she said. Another works with Chanhassen and Eden Prairie.

Yet according to fall 2014 Minnesota Department of Education data, nearly 27 percent of Chaska High School students were on free and reduced lunch programs. In the district's other high school, Chanhassen High, almost 8 percent of its students were on free and reduced lunch.

"We don't have maybe the huge percentage as some schools do, but that doesn't mean that we don't have kids that need something, and it's not their fault that they're going to a school where a lot of people have money," Lovett said.

Filling a need

Two students started the Hawk Haul food shelf at Chaska a few years ago, but students didn't know about food options and couldn't access the shelf regularly until recently, Lovett said.

Lovett began the Student Care Team in September, bringing together a handful of community members including staff, parents and church leaders who meet monthly to talk about kids' needs. In the fall, the food shelf ramped up its weekly food deliveries, she said. Students in the DECA organization and a parent volunteer team help organize food.

In November, the Hawk Haul signed a contract with a nonprofit called the Sheridan Story to give bags of food to students on weekends, supplemented with Hawk Haul supplies.

"It just seems like this food shelf is meeting a need that has not been recognized for a lot of years," said Brianna Gasterland, a 2014 Chaska High School graduate who is volunteering during her college winter break at the food shelf.

Hunger and homelessness can look different in the suburbs, Lovett said. Instead of people asking for change at stoplights, kids will couch-hop for periods of time.

"What we are finding is that hunger and homelessness is kind of invisible out here," Lovett said.

Student groups have organized collections for Hawk Haul supplies, and that grass-roots contribution goes a long way, said Chaska High School Principal David Brecht.

"I think it becomes even more meaningful for them," Brecht said. "It connects them. They know they're having an impact in their own school, in their own community."

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569