The worst US drought in more than half a century has weakened the safety net for the 50 million Americans who struggle to get enough to eat, and the nation's food banks are raising the alarm as the holiday season gets into full swing.
Demand for food assistance -- unrelenting as the US economy slowly recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression -- ticks higher during the winter holidays.
This summer's crop-damaging weather in the US farm belt has driven up costs for everything from grain to beef. That means higher prices at the grocery store, but it also means the US government has less need to buy key staples like meat, peanut butter, rice and canned fruits and vegetables to support agricultural prices and remove surpluses.
Most of the products from those government purchases are sent to US food banks, which then distribute them to food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters that are a lifeline for people who struggle with hunger - including low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
The decline in government donations is exacerbating the pain inflicted by stubbornly high unemployment and a lack of income growth for many low-wage workers.
"People have been coping with economic distress for a really, really, really long time...After several years of tapping all the resources we have, we're starting to see that we're coming up short," said Carrie Calvert, director of tax and commodity policy at Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization.
Executives at major food banks across the United States worry they will not be able to keep pace with demand, which they don't expect to ease until more Americans find better paying jobs. In a sign of how stressed the budgets of many Americans are, a record 47.1 million people used food stamps in August 2012, up from 45.8 million the year earlier.
With such pressures at work, on-hand supplies at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank have fallen from a peak of about 3.3 weeks in 2010 to less than two weeks - the lowest in recent history, according to its president and CEO, Michael Flood.
Tightening food supplies last summer forced the food bank to start a waiting list because it does not have enough inventory to expand beyond the 640 agencies it already supplies with food. There are now 565 nonprofits on the waiting list, Flood said.
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