More than 25-million Americans 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 nearly 3-million senior citizens, 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 United States. The vast majority are run locally by churches and private nonprofit groups.
The surveys were done before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. After the hurricanes, demand for emergency food assistance tripled in Gulf Coast states, according to a separate report by the group.
The new report, being released Thursday, 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.
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 the number of hungry Americans increasing.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last year said 13.5-million American 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 USDA spokeswoman, said private groups play an important role in supplementing the government's safety net.
"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.
In Washington, the Capital Area Food Bank served more than 383,000 people last year, a 39 percent increase over 2001, said Kasandra Gunter Robinson, the food bank's spokeswoman.
Of those people, nearly half had jobs, she said.
"It is the working poor who are struggling," Robinson said.
Robinson said skyrocketing rents and real estate prices in the Washington area have drained budgets and increased hunger.
Lisa Koch of the Greater Chicago Food Depository said she interviewed people at a Chicago soup kitchen who were on their lunch breaks from work. About 39 percent of the households in the Chicago survey included at least one adult with a job. The agency served about 500,000 people last year.
"Even though the economy might be changing, it isn't creating the kinds of jobs that allow people to make ends meet," Koch said.
WHO THEY'RE HELPING
America's Second Harvest soup kitchens and shelters served 25.3-million people last year, a 9 percent increase from 2001.
Of those seeking food assistance:
+ Thirty-nine percent were white, 38 percent were black and 17 percent were Hispanic.
+ About 9-million were children.
+ Nearly 3-million were 65 or older.
+ Nearly 70 percent had incomes below the official poverty level, which is $15,067 for a family of three.
+ About 12 percent were homeless.