It's lunchtime at St. James High School in southwest Minnesota, and students are filling their trays with Salisbury steak, broccoli and applesauce - the kind of variety some may not have at home.
About half of these students are eating a free or reduced-price lunch, because paying for meals is a hardship for their families. But when the lunchroom goes dark come summer, some of those families could have trouble affording enough nutritious food.
It's a problem that's receiving increased attention. Last year, 107 groups signed up to provide free summer meals as part of a federally-funded summer food program. That's more than double the number of a decade ago.
But more groups are needed to provide meals, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.
“This means a lot to me, that kids are fed well and they have what they need to be successful in life.”Brenda Cassellius, Minn. Education Commissioner
"This means a lot to me, that kids are fed well and they have what they need to be successful in life," Cassellius said.
As an educator, Cassellius knows that if children are healthy and engaged over the summer, they come back in the fall better prepared to learn.
But the summer food program also means something to her personally. Cassellius grew up in public housing in Minneapolis, and her family used food stamps. She said the summer food program -- along with other activities like summer camp, or Head Start -- can help low-income kids move forward.
"I think these are the kinds of programs that can help families overcome barriers, and really persevere, and break the cycle of poverty," Cassellius said.
Last year, the Summer Food Service Program served an all-time high of 1.7 million meals in Minnesota. Still -- more than three fourths of the students on free and reduced-priced lunch didn't participate in the summer program. Education officials say the state needs more sites, especially outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and they're looking for volunteers.
The Minnesota Department of Education is seeking schools, non-profit and faith-based organizations to sponsor the summer food program. The department will hold a Feb. 24 meeting at its Roseville headquarters to discuss the program and how sponsors will be trained and reimbursed.
Soft-spoken, 23-year-old Lydia Olsen, who had worked with low-income kids in St. James, read about the program in a newspaper last year and thought "we need that."
"The kids will tell me, 'we didn't have dinner last night,' or 'we had to share what we usually have on our own; me and my brother shared it,' " Olsen said.
She also knew some children were home alone while their parents worked, eating chips or whatever else they could find.
St. James is in Watonwan County, a small county in southwestern Minnesota. It's rural, and it's also home to many Latino families who have come to work at a meat-processing plant.
Thanks to Olsen and her colleagues, the schools launched three sites in Watonwan -- one each in St. James, Madelia, and Butterfield-Odin school districts. In each of the districts, more than half of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Olsen said one of the hardest things was getting children to the lunchroom. Some children from the north side of St. James never made it. But Olsen was able to help children who live in a nearby mobile home park. Like a pied piper, she led them across railroad tracks and busy intersections once a week.
"It's just like a school bus would be, only we walked," Olsen said. "We had leaders at the front and the back, and kids in between."
The food was connected to other activities -- literacy classes, and summer school. Summer school teachers report it increased attendance. In that way, the summer program became about more than just food. It also helped connect kids with learning opportunities, and adults.
Twelve-year-old Priscilla Lopez and her 10-year-old sister Jada went regularly last summer to the school in Madelia. They live with their step-mother and father, who works at a food-processing plant in town.
Most of all, the girls remember the social part of summer food -- field trips, swimming, and friends.
"We would just usually meet here," Jada said. "And we would just sit there and talk."
Priscilla also remembers exactly what they ate.
"I remember we had spaghetti with garlic bread," she said. "We had pizza one time."
Their dad appreciates that his kids had a place to go in the summer, and positive things to do. But Mario Lopez really appreciates the food. His hours were cut about a year ago, and last summer was tough economically.
Lopez said the free meals helped him save the money from breakfast and lunch -- and put it toward dinner for the whole family.