CBNNews.com - SAN DIEGO - Hunger is often invisible. But not on the streets of San Diego, where young and old line up three times a week at the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City.
They receive a loaf of bread, some eggs, milk and a bit of produce. It's not a lot, but Pastor Deron Matson says many will stand in line for hours, hoping to get the best food they believe is available at the front of the line.
"Some wait over 12 hours," he told CBN News. "We had a three-o'clock distribution today and I've seen people line up beginning at 2:30- 3 a.m."
Gary McDonald, CEO of Feeding America in San Diego, said Matson's line not unusual.
"We've seen lines as long as 4,500 people," he said. "It's amazing."
Filling the Food Pantries
This story line is playing out at churches and food pantries across the country, courtesy of an economy gone bad. More families are forced to cut back--and that includes groceries.
"More and more families are going a day or even two or three days without any food whatsoever," McDonald explained.
The non-profit group Feeding America oversees 200 food banks across the country which supply 63,000 food pantries. This year, the pantries report demand for food is up by 20 percent. That translates into an average of 4 million people standing in line for food every week.
Pastor Frank Allen, who works with Christian relief organization Operation Blessing, helps supply food to the poor in Portsmouth, Va. This year, the number he's feeding has doubled.
"In this community, there are children that go to bed hungry," he explained.
Allen's ministry, Hope Charitable Ministries, provides multiple kinds of food assistance during the week. On Tuesday nights, it's dinner for the children in the ministry's after-school tutoring program. The meal helps families who often don't have the time or resources to feed their kids.
Allen said he's seeing a number of families cutting back on what they eat.
"Some folks eat two meals a day, " he said. "A lot of people just add another can of water to the soup."
CBN News found David Michel standing in the food line at the Church of the Nazarene in San Diego. Michel has three kids to feed; and in his family of five, he's the only working adult. But Michel never expected to need help with food.
"I used to volunteer here," he said. "I used to be on the other side."
Michel's employer, a local grocery store, cut back his hours. Now he's looking for a new job, but it has been tough. He's up against an economy where many industries are not just cutting hours, but cutting jobs.
Pastor Matson says many in his food line are unemployed.
"They're coming to me asking for leads on jobs, ideas on jobs," he explained. "I keep my ears open for something they can get into again."
Acrosst he country, Emmanuel Jackson in Portsmouth, Va., can relate. He's worked for 13 years as a chef for a national restaurant chain. But now, he's facing a cut in hours.
"I was working 40-50 hours a week. Now, I'm averaging 25-30, 35 tops" he said..
For Jackson's family, the reduced paycheck is not enough.
"Average take-home pay is $150 a week. That's not enough to take care of a wife and five children," he said..
To help, Jackson took a second job at minimum wage. But it's still difficult to make ends meet. That's why he estimated 80 percent of his family's food comes from a local food pantry.
Jackson also receives some food stamps, but as many families know--that's only part of the solution. The average monthly benefit for a family is $215.
Food pantries say they're also seeing more seniors--unable to manage rising food prices on fixed incomes.
The other part of the problem, which makes for a "perfect storm," is food supply. Corporate donations are down, thanks to increased efficiencies and economic necessity.
As the country's economic crisis continues, government and non-profit groups are struggling to understand just how many adults and children are hungry.
USDA figures released in November of 2007 showed that 4 percent of U.S. households suffer from what's called "very low food security." That is, they're cutting portions, or at times skipping meals altogether.
Groups like Feeding America believe the problem is worse this year and will continue to grow. That means more and more people will find themselves in a very difficult position.
"They're embarrassed. They're ashamed. They've never had to ask before, especially senior adults. They're not used to asking," Pastor Allen said.
McDonald says the problem of hunger is especially difficult for children.
"Can you imagine not knowing if you're going to eat or not?," he asked. "And then going to school and being hungry the whole day and then getting your lunch. And finally you're full because it's the first time you've eaten in 24 hours and now you're a little sleepy."
The good news is there is help available.The government says only two-thirds of those eligible are taking advantage of food stamps.For others, food banks will make the difference.
But with supplies in question, many pantries worry that they may not be able to help provide what so many take for granted - food on the table.