Ginny Mermel knew she would see demand increase as the school year wore on, but she didn't expect this.
"We were kind of caught off-guard," she said.
Mermel runs the BackPack Meals Program, a nonprofit initiative that puts food in the backpacks of needy kids as they leave school each Friday.
It's an expensive program to run, and over the summer Mermel looked at what she would need for the coming school year. She finished off in June with 249 students participating.
Allowing for growth, she figured she would have about 280 students on the program by end of this school year.
Instead, she's up to 280 students now with another 67 asking to get on.
"I can't do it right now," she said.
Mermel started the program in 2009 with a seed grant from the Montana Food Bank Network to provide food-filled backpacks to elementary school students. Backpacks are offered to students who qualify in the district's eight Title I schools.
Teachers, counselors and principals identify chronically hungry students who would benefit from getting a backpack to take home on weekends and school holidays. The backpacks contain two small entrees, two pieces of fruit, two cereal containers, two containers of 100 percent fruit juices and shelf-stable milk.
When she started in 2009, she ended up serving 521 kids. By working with families each year, introducing them to various services and programs that offered support to low-income households, Mermel brought that number down to 249.
Now the number is growing again.
"Kids can't learn if they're hungry," she said.
Instead of concentrating in class, they're thinking about their rumbling stomachs, about where they'll eat when they leave school for the day or for the weekend.
Mermel isn't sure what's causing the spike in need this year. Just over 40 percent of SD2's 16,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, up from 33 percent a few years ago.
The district's population of homeless students — 240 on Thursday — is level with where it was last October.
"It's about the same," said Sue Runkle, SD2's homeless education liaison.
The number of homeless students is cumulative, a tally of each of the students who were at some point during the last school year identified as homeless.
And while the October-to-October number is the same, the year-to-year amount has grown. At the end of the 2010 school year, SD2 had served 466 homeless students. That number grew to 497 last year.
Runkle said the vast majority of the district's homeless students are Billings residents — rather than transplants — who end up in their situation because a parent or guardian has lost a job or some other hardship has befallen them.
"This year, I'm actually seeing more families from out of state," Runkle said.
She has no data to explain why, but from what she's heard from the families she's talked to this year, she believes the oil boom in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota plays some role.
Mermel believes that's the case. Like Runkle, she said she has no hard numbers to prove it. But as she talks to the families with whom she's working, she hears the stories.
"There's a lot of economic energy in Billings right now," Mermel said.
She believes some families move to Billings in hopes of finding a job and either aren't successful or find they're having to wait longer than they anticipated.
She also hears from low-income families pushed out of communities like Sidney and other Bakken-area towns as they swell with oil field workers.
"Seems like the Bakken is having a paradoxical effect" on the area's low-income population, Mermel said.
As she looks for ways to get an additional 70 students on her BackPack Meals Program, she's writing grant applications and seeking donations from the business community.
"I hate to keep asking for money," she said.
But she knows it's important. Well-fed students feel more security in their lives, perform better at school and graduate in higher numbers, she said. Ultimately, that's good for Montana's economy, she said.
"If people would like to donate, that'd be great," she said.
Community members who want to give can send donations to the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools at 415 N. 30th St., Billings, MT 59101, and mark the donation for the BackPack Meals Program.