CHICAGO -- As America's economy flounders, the number of Americans headed to food banks is growing.
Five years ago the nation's largest food banks moved just under 2 billion pounds of food a year. Today they're moving more than three billion pounds a year.
The situation is so bad that one high school football coach opened a food pantry to feed his hungry players.
"In Oklahoma we have a high school football coach tell us that he's having students experience broken bones because they're malnourished," Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, told CBN News.
"You know, you can't have high school students in America that can't play football because they're not getting three square meals a day," he said.
Even in affluent areas like Chicago's North Shore, food pantries are on overload. Hillside Free Methodist Church in Evanston opened its own pantry in 2009 to meet the need.
"In our first year we went from 20 families a month to 783 families," pantry director Maiya Lueptow told CBN News.
Today Hillside helps more than 2,000 families every month. It's a familiar story across the Chicago metro area, including in suburban DuPage County.
Roger Schmith, founder of West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge, described their growth in recent years as "phenomenal."
"We've gone from 750 a month to 1,200 households right now," he said.
The New Normal
For millions of Americans in the last several years, food pantries have become the new normal.
Food banks across the country say that what used to be a temporary fix is now a long-term survival strategy.
Regulars like Anne Cleary are often unemployed or underemployed. The corporate veteran worked for years in Chicago as an event planner and corporate meeting planner.
"I was free-lancing, doing well, going to wonderful places in the winter and avoiding the cold," Cleary told CBN News.
"And then, three, four, five years ago everything just kind of went south," she said.
Cleary survives now with periodic work and periodic use of the Hillside pantry.
For Chicago resident Yolanda Johnson, a big challenge is putting her daughter through college on her teacher aide's salary and whatever else she can find.
"I just do whatever I can to make ends meet," she said. "I do a lot of baby-sitting, a lot of staying late at work if they need someone to do something extra."
Feeding America, the country's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, serves 37 million people a year, up 46 percent since 2006.
More than half of its clients are regulars, making monthly pantry visits for at least six months.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has equally tough statistics.
The agency's latest research shows that more than 48 million people live in homes where food is scarce.
At best they turn to food pantries or government food benefits. At worst they must simply eat less.
Single dad Darrell Kelly tries to limit his visits to the DuPage pantry. But all too often fewer hours at his job as a mechanic make it tough to feed his four kids.
"If it's a bad week they go 30 hours," Kelly said of his employer. "That's when I try making up the difference by coming to the food bank or I do side jobs if I can 'cause I paint."
These hard times for families also mean an enormous challenge for food banks and pantries. There are bright spots, however.
Grocery chains have stepped up donating millions of pounds of food each year.
Also, Operation Blessing International's Hunger Strike Force transports some 2 million pounds a week to pantries and other ministry groups.
There's also the concept of rescuing food. For example, farmers market vendors in Evanston, Ill., have begun donating produce considered "past perfect" to area food pantries.
Feeding America believes the potential here is huge. The organization's research shows more than 5 billion pounds of U.S. produce go to waste each year. It's simply not harvested or harvested but not brought to market.
Either way, the rescued food is needed on America's tables now and most likely for years to come.
"If the economy gets better tomorrow, it's still going to be a couple of years before people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum are helped," Fraser explained.
"So we see demand being very high for the foreseeable future," he said.