More than 25 million US citizens turned to the nation's largest network of food banks, soup kitchens and shelters for meals last year, up 9 percent from 2001.
Those seeking food included 9 million children and almost 3 million elderly, says a report from America's Second Harvest.
"The face of hunger doesn't have a particular color, and it doesn't come from a particular neighborhood," said Ertharin Cousin, executive vice president of the group. "They are your neighbors, they are working Americans, they are senior citizens who have worked their entire lives, and they are children."
The organization said it interviewed 52,000 people at food banks, soup kitchens and shelters across the country last year. The network represents about 39,000 hunger-relief organizations, or about 80 percent of those in the US. Most are run locally by churches and private nonprofit groups.
The surveys were done before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf of Mexico coast last year. After the hurricanes, demand for emergency food help tripled in Gulf Coast states, according to a separate report by the group.
The main report, released yesterday, found that 36 percent of people seeking food came from households in which at least one person had a job. About 35 percent came from households that received food stamps, a federal welfare system to help poor families feed themselves.
Cousin said the numbers show that many working people don't make enough money to feed their families. She said the food stamp numbers show that the government program, while important, is insufficient.
"The benefits they are receiving are not enough," Cousin said.
Government reports also show that the number of hungry people in the US is increasing.
A US Department of Agriculture report released last year said 13.5 million US households, or nearly 12 percent, had difficulty providing enough food for family members at some time in 2004. That was up from about 11 percent in 2003.
Jean Daniel, a US Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said private groups play an important role in supplementing the government's safety net. USDA administers the food-stamp program.
"We have said all along that the government cannot do this alone, nor should it," Daniel said. "Their efforts dovetail very nicely with ours."
Some local food-assistance groups saw big jumps in their numbers of people seeking food, despite an improving economy.
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