The line outside the Catholic Social Services food pantry in Norristown yesterday was longer than usual - 62 people when there are normally 40.

"I usually come early and it's not like this," said Willie Smith, a 47-year-old regular client at the pantry.

By 11 a.m., the official closing time, there were still 12 people awaiting food. No one got turned away, but food-bank clients were surprised by just how many hungry people there are these days.

"We are struggling right now," said Joanne Lelli, 39, a laid-off Wal-Mart worker and single mother of a 10-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. She says she often has to choose between food and heating oil.

The country is filled with people making just that choice. And food banks are feeling pressure to get people through.

These days, as demand for food increases, most food banks around the nation as well as in the Philadelphia area are coping with diminished supplies - an economic formula for hard times.

"It's a very frustrating situation," said Melody Kelly, an executive at St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix.

"This will be a very bad season for people in need," said Kendall Hanna, director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg.

"Maybe the worst in 26 years," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest-The Nation's Food Bank Network, a hunger-relief charity to which 85 percent of all U.S. food banks belong.

A number of complex factors are squeezing food banks, whose larders are lighter by 15 million pounds of food (that's 11.7 billion meals) than they should be by the end of December, as determined by Second Harvest calculations of available food supplies, Fraser said.

One of the biggest problems is the massive reduction of food supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodities program, said Fraser.

Typically, the USDA buys the surplus food that U.S. farmers have produced but cannot sell. That food - a few tons of tomatoes here, a bumper crop of peaches there, as well as other grocery products - is routed to regional food banks, which in turn supply local food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

Farm prices have been so stable, however - especially as farmers sell American crops overseas - that the government has been buying less surplus. As a result, there is much less food available for food banks.

Figures show that in 2004, supplies to food banks from the surplus program totaled $223 million. Last year, it was just $67 million, said the USDA. This year's figures are not yet available.

"That is just a tremendous falloff," said Fraser. "And it means we have to find some way to replace that food, which had cost us no money. So we're begging for food and funds."

Luckier than most states, thanks to an injection of funds from Trenton, New Jersey is not feeling the effects of the decreases in USDA supply. "We are almost at the same distribution levels this year as last year," said Val Traore, executive director of the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken.

On top of the USDA shortfall, donations of food from national food manufacturers and retailers are down 9 percent this year, said Fraser. And throughout the country, food banks are reporting that donations of food from local food manufacturers are down even more dramatically.

For years, food manufacturers (such as ConAgra, maker of Hunt's ketchup, Healthy Choice meals and other products) would find themselves with overstock - more product than they could sell. The companies would donate the excess to food banks and take a charitable-donation tax break, Fraser said.

Within the last seven years, however, a secondary market has developed: dollar stores. "Manufacturers now get 10 to 20 cents on the dollar if they sell their overstock to dollar stores," said Hanna of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. "So now, we don't get the food, which puts the squeeze on people in need."

At Philabundance - the region's largest food bank, serving 100,000 people a week through 600 agencies - supplies have been down significantly. By the end of November 2006, the food bank's warehouse was 65 percent full. By the end of last month, however, it was just 40 percent full, said Martha Buccino, senior vice president for strategic development.

(Recent publicity about Philabundance's problems has inspired more people to donate food, increasing the food bank's inventory beyond 40 percent, although the exact amount is not yet known, Buccino said yesterday.)

Overall, while most food banks are getting less food, they are dealing with what looks to be a staggering increase in demand.

Rising prices for gasoline and heating oil make life harder for people living on the margins - not just the poor, but the so-called working poor who have jobs but are nonetheless swamped by the increasing costs of daily living. Too many are compelled to make the impossible choice of gas for the car or food for the children.

Food itself is growing more expensive. Milk is up 20 percent, eggs 44 percent and peanut butter 40 percent, said Stephanie Nichols, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank, which saw a 27 percent drop in donated food this year.

It's difficult to calculate demand, but food banks are saying they believe it's up 20 percent to 50 percent across the country.

At the food bank in Pennsauken, the increasing need is palpable.

"On average for all our food programs in 2006, we took care of 18,000 people per week," said Traore. "Now we're doing 24,000 to 26,000 people per week."

In places like Norristown and West Chester in Pennsylvania, as well as Clementon and Burlington in New Jersey, people are living on the razor's edge. The working poor are gripped by "an invisible fist," said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance. "They used to fall off on the side of 'just getting by,' " he added. "Now they fall off on the side of 'not getting by.'

"Hunger happens to a family a lot like a serious illness. It can move you into devastation pretty quickly. I don't just mean people living paycheck to paycheck. It's surprising how quickly anyone can become cash-poor."

The invisible fist has lately taken hold of Melissa Morales, 21, of Clementon. Employed at a furniture store, the single mother of a 3-year-old son and an 11-month-old daughter is having a tough time. She was grateful this week for the whole chicken, and packages of noodles and muffins she got from the Corner Cupboard food pantry at the First Baptist Church of Chesilhurst, Camden County.

"It helps me," she said. "I am getting by - barely. I don't have extra money."

Ann Clarke, a 39-year-old mother of four in Burlington, said she finds it hard to believe a person like her would be frequenting a food bank. She's a married homemaker, owns a house, and works hard to create a stable environment for her children, ages 7 to 20.

But her husband, a carpenter, recently was laid off. So she was in line recently at St. Paul's Food Pantry, waiting for rice and hoping for better days.

"The average person lives in a fantasy world," Clarke said. "No one understands what people are facing. It's frustrating. Christmas will be hard this year."

To view a video on challenges facing Philabundance, go to http://go.philly.com/philabundance

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Fight Hunger in the Region

Local food banks gratefully accept monetary donations.

Philabundance: P.O. Box 37555, 3616 S. Galloway St., Philadelphia 19148 or http://go.philly.com/phil. Information: 215-339-0900, Ext. 3.

Food Bank of South Jersey: 1501 John Tipton Blvd., Pennsauken, 08110 or at http://go.philly.com/sjfood. Information: 856-662-4884, Ext. 10. EndText

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 856-779-3919 or alubrano@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza contributed to this article.