Hunger relief advocates came to Congress on Thursday and painted a bleak picture of a country struggling to meet an increased need for food assistance at a time of high unemployment.
"In our 42-year history, we have never witnessed a demand for our services like we are seeing now," said Josh Fogt, public policy manager for Northwest Harvest in Seattle. The organization operates Washington state's largest food bank.
Charities and nonprofit groups called on lawmakers to give people tax incentives to donate to charities, expand federal nutrition programs and spend more on programs to help people prepare for work.
The Northwest Harvest pantry in Seattle gets more than 2,500 visitors on busy days, up from a peak of 1,800 early last year, Fogt told members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"Hunger relief is truly a growth industry and we are increasingly being asked to do more with less," Fogt said.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said Americans are facing a time of uncertainty.
"As we approach the holiday season, we all have grave concerns about how these difficult times are generating unprecedented need for life's basic necessities: food, clothing, shelter," Boustany said.
The congressional hearing on food banks followed an Agriculture Department report that more than one in seven households struggled to put enough food on the table in 2008 the highest rate since the agency began tracking food security in 1995.
That's about 49 million people, or 14.6 percent of U.S. households counted as lacking the food for an active, healthy life.
"Hunger is not just touching the urban homeless, but it is touching the suburban housewife," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said. "It is touching the middle class. It is touching our children and seniors."
Candy Hill of Catholic Charities USA said local agencies are getting more requests from first-time clients.
The Catholic Charities office in Youngstown, Ohio, is getting 70 calls a day for help with food and utilities up from 100 a month last year, Hill said. "It will not only take government being our partner, but it will also take all of us corporations, philanthropy and individual donors to solve the extreme problem of hunger in our country today."
"Those we serve are now our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard-working individuals struggling to make ends meet," Hill said.
In October, the Catholic Charities of Central Texas' food pantry fed 2,637 people its largest monthly number, the agency reported. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada saw its number of food bank clients double from July to September, compared with the same period last year.