Renae and Keith's two daughters worked on homework while the family ate free chili last week at their usual dinner spot, Easter Lutheran Church.

"It helps stretch the dollar," Renae said of the free dinners offered by Loaves and Fishes at the Eagan church, one of six new suburban dining sites the nonprofit has opened around the metro area in the past two years.

The expansion is driven by a growing need in the suburbs that has persisted despite the improving economy, said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves and Fishes.

The number of children receiving free and reduced lunch last year had increased 35 percent, on average, in large suburban school districts since the height of the recession during the 2008-2009 school year, Minnesota Department of Education data show. Public schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis saw respective increases of 1 percent and 5 percent postrecession.

"The suburbs are now experiencing what Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen for years," said Libby Starling, the Metropolitan Council's regional policy and research manager. The "suburbanization of poverty" is due, in part, to the loss of middle-income jobs that many suburban residents relied on, Starling said. More low-income families are also moving to the suburbs as the housing stock there ages and becomes less expensive, she said.

But for many suburbanites, the local need remains out of sight and out of mind, social service providers said.

"You could live in the community and never have to look at and acknowledge the need," said Anika Rychner, director of self-sufficiency at 360 Communities, a nonprofit primarily serving Dakota County. "Poverty doesn't look the same in the suburbs, but it's definitely here."

Many of the people who get food assistance from 360 Communities are working but need a little extra help, she said. When people are short on food, it's a symptom of larger problems, like underemployment, which is when someone cannot find full-time work or is not making as much or getting the same benefits they used to receive before the recession, Rychner said.

"It takes a long time for people to recover. It doesn't just happen overnight, and if they're lucky enough to be re-employed it's not at the same wage," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "No one's bouncing back, I'm sorry to say."

Renae, who didn't want her last name published, said her family has been "playing catch-up" financially. She and her husband both have full-time jobs, but there was a time when that was not the case. She went back to school and got a degree a couple of years ago, leaving her with student loan debt.

"You advance, but you also pay for it," she said. "You don't just wake up and everything's fine one day."

Creating community

In recent years, Loaves and Fishes added dining sites in Brooklyn Center, Crystal, Eagan, Inver Grove Heights, Plymouth and Richfield. The organization also added three urban sites in St. Paul and Minneapolis and has increased its budget by one-third, to $2.4 million, in the past two years, Maes said.

The new locations usually serve 50 to 150 people per meal, she said.

There is a "huge, huge need," for free meals in the suburbs, said Kimberly Greene-DeLanghe, a site coordinator with the nonprofit. But not all her clients are there because they are strapped for cash.

"A lot of people just need a place to be social," she said.

Many of the clients at the new locations are seniors, Maes said, and for some people it's their sole interaction with others during the day.

"Loneliness is just as dangerous and unhealthy as not having food," she said.

Orlando Hash, a senior who lives in a small apartment in Eagan, said he eats at Easter Lutheran a couple of times a week and invites neighbors to join him. Last Thursday, he chatted with a woman named Christie, a Nevada transplant who said she has been eating at Easter Lutheran Church since she moved to Eagan in September.

Before she noticed the "free meal" sign outside the church, Christie said she was getting by on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Wow, this couldn't come at a better time," she recalls thinking when she saw the sign. She had a gap before starting a new job. No paychecks were coming in, and she was hit with a couple of unexpected expenses. Christie started bicycling to work because she couldn't afford gas.

Dinners at Easter Lutheran were her only real meals of the day, she said.

She comes by the church less often now that her job started but said she likes the community she found — and a couple of free meals a week help.

"I'm trying to recover from the hole I found myself in," she said.