The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that 49 million Americans are struggling to put food on the table. Often they're eating poorly or simply eating less.
It's yet another sign of today's tough economy. But thousands of non-profits and faith-based organizations are fighting back.
"People come to us looking for a well-balanced, nourishing kind of meal and we just keep serving till the food runs out," said Mana Masters of First Lutheran Church in Norfolk, Va.
First Lutheran has teamed with other local churches to provide hot meals to the public. Lunch is served every day of the week.
"For a lot of people, this is it," Masters said. "This is their only source of food."
The 15-year ministry helps many homeless people and with today's economy, those numbers are growing.
"People are desperate." Masters explained. "Incomes are dropping and they're relying on the grace of churches and volunteers and people in their community to support them."
As high unemployment continues, many non-profits are working over-time.
Ghent Area Ministries
Martha Gorman's church-based ministry, Ghent Area Ministries, helped 700 more clients this year than last. Food bag requests tripled.
The problem, said Gorman, is not just job loss but fewer hours and benefits.
"I have so many people come in the door and say - 'I'm $2 over the limit for food stamps' and you think - what? And they have a family of four or five to feed," Gorman said.
Debby Fava is one of those people. She works two jobs, seven days a week to provide for her disabled husband and daughter. But Fava has a secret weapon - Angel Food Ministries.
Angel Food Ministries
Angel Food Ministries distributes half a million boxes of food to churches around the country each month. The restaurant quality food is often half price, and available to anyone who orders.
"At the end of each month, I have to look at--what do I pay, ok, I need to keep the power on, I need to have food and just the opportunity to have food at a lower price has been an absolute blessing," Fava explained.
Angel Food customer Kelsay Shepard lost his job at a furniture store months ago. He's now an experienced job seeker.
"I've applied for jobs that I'm qualified for, underqualified for, overqualified for - it's just not a good time to be job-hunting," he said.
So Angel Food, along with odd jobs and food stamps is keeping Shepard afloat - for now.
Kelsay, like so many Angel Food customers, wants no part of soup kitchens or food banks. In that respect, he's typical of many of today's hungry - people simply seeking a hand-up rather than a hand-out.
"It's not a giveaway - they have to buy it," Pugh insisted. "So it's giving dignity to folks when they come in. I eat it myself so it's just great. I haven't lost weight yet!"
Hunters for the Hungry
Helping the hungry can take so many forms. One group, Virginia-based Hunters for the Hungry, takes advantage of hunters' bounty.
It's an age-old idea: Hunters bring in what they can't eat. Butchers then process it and distribute the meat to local non-profits.
"It's quite a gourmet item. If you go to buy farm-raised deer, it's in the six to seven dollar a pound range," Hunters' Richard Edmondson said.
Across the country, hunters are catching the concept and bringing in high quality protein that so many cannot afford.
No one knows exactly how many non-profits are meeting food needs, let alone how many individual Americans are helping their neighbor. But with the number of hungry at the highest level in years, these ministries are keeping stomachs full and no doubt nourishing hearts and minds as well.
*Originally published January 7, 2010.