NEW YORK — As the economy has steadily grown over the past four years, so too has the number of Americans going hungry.
America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest charitable food distribution network, is now providing help to more than 25 million people, an 8 percent increase over 2001, the last time the organization did a major survey of its more than 200 food banks in all 50 states.
That increase in the number of people who are hungry or "food insecure" - Washington bureaucratese for "not sure where their next meal will come from" - is reflected in data collected by the US Department of Agriculture as well. In 2005, it found more than 38 million Americans lived in "hungry or food insecure" households, an increase of 5 million since 2000.
"Even though individuals may have a job, they still are having a hard time making ends meet," says Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for Second Harvest, which is based in Chicago. "We find many people have to make choices between food and other basic necessities like paying for utilities and heat."
More than 35 percent of the people who are served by Second Harvest come from homes with at least one working adult, according to the study, which was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, a social-policy research firm based in Princeton, N.J. And many of those hungry are children, almost 9 million, or 31 percent. Another 3 million of the hungry are senior citizens, about 11 percent.
"Food banks are like the canary in the mine shafts. They see trends in underreported populations long before they show up in other statistics," says Doug O'Brien, vice president for public policy and research at Second Harvest. "People access emergency food systems because something in their household economy has gone wrong."
In other words, their incomes are not keeping up with their cost of living. And the food budget, studies have shown, is the most flexible. It can be cut with a visit to a soup kitchen, while the mortgage, rent, gas, or electric bills are less fungible.
"The fact that so many working people still have to go to a soup kitchen or a food bank to make ends meet shows there's something structurally wrong with the economy," says Mr. O'Brien. "If you work, you should be able to provide enough for your family. That's part of the social contract we have with our citizens."