STOCKTON, Calif. - Jackie Hoffman sifted through a laundry bin filled with aging bread, choosing a loaf of white.

Like nearly a third of the first 50 customers to arrive at the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton that morning, Hoffman was new to the pantry. But since she lost her sales job at a local newspaper in December, she has not found work in Stockton, which has the highest foreclosure rate in the country and a hurting job market.

"I'm down on my luck," Hoffman said, squeezing and sniffing the bread. "And food is going through the roof. I need help."

Hoffman, 55, is one of the growing number of "nontraditional" food-pantry clients across the country. They include more formerly independent senior citizens, more people who own houses and more people who used to call themselves "middle-class" - those who are not used to fretting over the price of milk.

"We're getting calls all the time from people who want to know how to get here," said Kristine Gibson, community outreach manager at the Stockton food pantry. "And when I ask where they live, they give an address of a nice neighborhood, one where you or I would want to live."

April saw the biggest jump in food prices in 18 years, according to the Labor Department. At the same time, workers' average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, dropped for the seventh straight month.

To meet growing demand, America's Second Harvest - The Nation's Food Bank Network, pressed lawmakers for the past year to increase the annual level of funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program, commonly know as TEFAP, from $140 million to $250 million annually.

A survey it conducted of 180 food banks in late April and early May found that 99 percent have seen an increase in the number of clients served within the last year. The increase is estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent, though many food banks reported increases as high as 40 percent.

The money was included in the Farm Bill recently approved by Congress, but won't be available until the next fiscal year, which starts in October.

"The way it's going, we're going to have a food disaster pretty soon," said Phyllis Legg, interim executive director of the Merced Food Bank, which serves 43 food pantries throughout foreclosure-ravaged Merced County.

Food banks across the country are in similar straits: While demand is up, supplies and donations are down. The food banks, like their customers, also are suffering from high gas prices and struggling with the impact of rising food prices on their operations. Some have had to cut back on how much food they give, or how often.

"If gas keeps going up, it's going to be catastrophic in every possible way," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest.

Food banks sometimes have to move food 150 miles to a food pantry, he said.

"You're going to get to the point where they are going to have to decide whether it's cheaper to just give a food pantry a check," he said. "The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else."

Prices at the pump are at record highs, averaging just below $4 a gallon, and are expected to climb further.

The Emergency Food Bank of Stockton, which operates out of a cavernous warehouse at the fringe of town, now finds customers lining up several hours before it opens at 10 a.m.

That's because, clients say, the best food - the fresh meat and eggs - goes first.

"If I get here too late, I'll be left with Marshmallow Fluff for 14 days," said Sondra Pearson, a mother of seven. "Not," she added, "that I'm going to turn that down." *