In its most current report, as of May 2009, the Department of Agriculture says that 34.4 million people are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. The average for 2008 was 28.4 million, and the increase from May 2008 is about 22%.
The benefits people are drawing have increased even faster: about 31% per household, to $295 per month in 2009. In total the recent bill increases food stamps and other assistance programs to $86 billion for 2009.
The increase comes at a time when unemployment benefits are running out for many people, even after the first extension.
Food stamps are not a runaway program. The number of people drawing benefits has increased over time, but decreased as a percentage of the population. And it's cyclical with the economy, and of course affected by legislation too (for some reason 1994 was especially high, at about 10 percent). But the recent tally of 34.4 million people, or 11 percent of the population, seems to be the highest ever, even compared to the recessions of the early 1980s.