As demand for emergency food assistance in Philadelphia increased 23 percent over the last year, emergency food supplies here plummeted 26 percent, according to a survey on hunger and homelessness by the United States Conference of Mayors.

That's the greatest demand-supply disparity among the 25 major cities participating in the survey, which was released yesterday afternoon.

The cities were asked to account for emergency food assistance and homeless services provided between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008.

Philadelphia did better with homelessness. The number of homeless here increased by just 3 percent over the last year, placing the city on the lower end of the scale. On average, the cities in the survey reported homelessness increases of 12 percent.

As the economy worsened in the last year, many people took advantage of emergency food assistance by going to food pantries for the first time, spiking demand, according to Pennsylvania hunger-relief advocates.

"There's been a dramatic increase in need, as poverty is trickling up," Sydelle Zove, policy advocate of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said yesterday. "Families are coping with job loss or having their work hours cut back."

Meanwhile, the level of funding of the State Food Purchase Program (to buy emergency food) remained the same over the last year.

That amounted to a de facto decrease in funding, Zove said, since overall food prices grew by 6.2 percent over the last year - the largest increase in 20 years, according to the survey. Bread alone is up 15.9 percent, while eggs have increased 23.2 percent, Zove said.

At the same time, the federal government's Emergency Food Assistance Program sent Pennsylvania slightly fewer dollars and pounds of food in 2007 than it did in 2006, according to Geoff Dunaway, director of the Bureau of Food Distribution in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The result was borne out in yesterday's survey.

Philadelphia is doing poorly in other areas as well, the survey showed.

For example, the city's poverty rate of 23.8 percent ranks it quite low among the 25 survey cities, with only Miami (25.5 percent), Providence (28.5 percent) and Cleveland (29.5 percent) registering higher rates.

Similarly, those cities were the only ones with lower median household incomes than Philadelphia's ($35,365).

The survey cities with the lowest poverty rates are Santa Monica (9 percent) and San Francisco (10.5 percent).

Regarding homelessness in Philadelphia, the survey referenced Mayor Nutter's Housing Retention Program, which provides rent, mortgage and utility assistance in neighborhoods where households are considered to be at high risk of becoming homeless.

In April, Nutter announced his commitment to providing 700 units of permanent housing for the homeless.

This is "the right strategic emphasis" in response to the survey, said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project Home, a nonprofit provider of services and housing.

Unfortunately, Scullion added, "we're now bracing ourselves for an even higher rate of hunger and homelessness due to the worsening economic situation."

Last week, there were more than 500 homeless people on the street in Philadelphia, about the same number there were this time last year, Scullion said.

The U.S. Conference survey has been issued every year since 1982, bringing attention to the plight of American cities.

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.