In school lunchrooms across the state, more kids are in need of a free meal.
New data from the Minnesota Department of Education show the number of students on free or reduced-price lunch rose 3.8 percent over last year. There are now more than 320,000 students on the program, or 38.3 percent of children in Minnesota's public schools. That's below the national rate of 54 percent, and the increases have slowed after steep jumps during the recession.
That growth comes despite signs that the economy is improving as more people are finding jobs and housing sales are rebounding. Given that improvement, analysts don't know exactly why more kids are in line for free lunch.
But the need for meals is clear across Minnesota.
At Adams Elementary in Coon Rapids, for example, nearly 63 percent of the students receive assistance, up from 58 percent last year. School social worker Amy Carroll said many families in her school are struggling.
"We have more and more kids coming and saying, 'You know, we need some food for the night or the weekend,'" Carroll said, "actually telling us, because at the elementary age they're not shy to tell us, 'You know, we don't have any food at home.' "
The rising enrollment in free or reduced-price lunch has Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius concerned about the level of poverty in schools.
"When you get to this kind of level, when you have 42.5 percent of students in first grade, it's like half your class that's struggling," Cassellius said.
Hunger makes it harder for kids to learn, she said, and harder for teachers to prepare students for college and careers.
Cassellius blames the economy, noting that some families are finding jobs, but not the wages they need to make it on their own.
38.3 percent of children in Minnesota's public schools are on free- or reduced-price lunch plans.
That theory is supported by statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Analyst Oriane Casale said low-wage workers have seen their real wages decline, even as high wage earners have seen increases.
"We know that wage inequality is increasing in Minnesota," Casale said. "People in the lower half of the wage distribution are not seeing increases in wages. And particularly for people at the lower end of the wage distribution who don't have other resources to draw on, savings and investments and stuff, this really affects their bottom line."
A recovery generally takes longer to reach people at the bottom of the economic ladder, said Craig Helmstetter, senior research manager at Wilder Research in St. Paul.
"Improvements to the economy generally lag for those at the margins, those at the bottom end of the economy," said Helmstetter, who watches poverty closely. "The benefits take a while to reach those folks."
But Helmstetter said that doesn't explain why the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch is still rising. He said while poverty rates in Minnesota went up dramatically during the recession, the latest data show them stabilizing. He'd expect school lunch to do the same.
"To me this does look like a case where the actual underlying need is not really getting any worse, or at least that's what I hope," Helmstetter said. "Instead I think that the schools are actually doing a better job of connecting kids with the free and reduced-price lunch program."
Education officials say they are doing a better job of getting eligible students signed up -- and changes in the process have made it easier to enroll students.
Meanwhile, some schools are doing what they can: starting food shelves or sending kids home with backpacks full of food.
Jennifer Terry teaches third grade at Skyview Elementary in Oakdale, Minn. In her district, the percentage of kids on subsidized lunch rose from 47 percent last year to 49 percent this year. Concerned about the students coming into her class hungry -- and homeless -- Terry and her colleagues started an annual event to connect families with resources like food stamps and health care.
"And we were so swamped," Terry said. "Even with all of our volunteers, we ran out of people to guide and to work."
As she sees it, connecting families with the help they need could get them back on their feet faster.
"We're trying to give them the tools they need to not drop any further," Terry said. "To help them stop the slide into more poverty, and kind of reverse that effect. And I think that as long as we do that, we're going to catch a lot of families, and give them the support."
More than 600 people showed up last year, and Terry is planning for another record number in a couple of weeks.