Leo Casey has volunteered at St. Edward's food pantry in Pine Hill for 17 years, but last month marked the first time he had seen the pantry almost run out of food.

"It's the hardest we ever got hit for Thanksgiving," said Casey, 87.

The pantry expected 100 families but ended up feeding closer to 150.

St. Edward's is not the only food pantry affected by the economy. According to Val Traore, chief executive of the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, the number of people seeking emergency food assistance in South Jersey has increased 41 percent over the last few months.

Rutgers University officials, recognizing the growing problem, last month launched Rutgers Against Hunger, an initiative that will engage students, faculty and alumni in donating food and participating in research to help alleviate hunger throughout the state.

"In this economic turmoil, what we see at Rutgers is a way to address this issue from a multifaceted approach," said Larry Katz, co-director of Rutgers Against Hunger.

The most visible component of the program is a yearlong, university-wide food drive. Bins for nonperishable items will stand in university buildings and at events on the three campuses.

"We can do it on all three campuses and make a huge impact on the state," said Mary Beth Daisey, coordinator for Rutgers-Camden.

Students at Rutgers-Camden have already collected food at several locations this semester, including at a drive for New Jersey troops and a "turkey trot" walk/run that produced 700 pounds of food that was donated to a local shelter.

Students, faculty and alumni can also donate through the Rutgers Against Hunger Web site, with a financial donation or through a virtual shopping cart. Participants can choose what food to donate online and then donate the cost of it.

"It's a little bit more alive than just donating $50," said Daisey, associate chancellor of student affairs at Rutgers-Camden. "Students really like to help the community when they can. It's important to them."

One of the beneficiaries of Rutgers-Camden's food drive in the spring is the Food Bank of South Jersey, which feeds about 87,000 people a year in Camden, Salem, Burlington and Gloucester Counties and which is in dire need of the extra source of food.

The bank was projected to distribute 4 million pounds of food this year, but it had already distributed 4.2 million pounds by Oct. 31. Among the places receiving food from the bank is St. Edward's.

"I'm just so excited about this relationship," Traore said. "It's such a genuine and substantive response of the educational community responding to the needs of hungry people."

Rutgers Against Hunger began in the middle of November and will extend past the holiday season for an entire year.

"With the nation the way it is, there's going to be food shortages throughout the year," Daisey said. "We thought it was important not to just do it at holiday times but continue it throughout the year."

Traore said this will be especially helpful come January, when many forget that people are hungry after the holidays.

"After the holiday season, we are depleted," she said. "Hunger does not take a holiday."

Katz, also the director of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said Rutgers Against Hunger is not only a food drive, but a push to educate students and the public and expand New Jersey's food options.

"The food drive is one piece of what we want to accomplish," he said. "What we really want to try to do is get wholesome, nutritional food out to people."

Research projects include looking into having farmers grow more food and increasing the shelf life of certain foods so they last throughout the winter.

Administrators are also discussing adding courses to the Rutgers curriculum that focus on food security and nutrition.

"It's about growing food, processing food, teaching students," Katz said. "Everybody at the university is talking about these issues. The nice thing about having it university-wide is it has everybody thinking about it from different perspectives."

While the economy was the impetus for Rutgers Against Hunger, Katz said the initiative's goals were long term.

"If we could teach people how to eat better, shop more wisely, then we will go a long way toward addressing the problem," he said. "We can contribute to the food and hunger issue in such a way that people are better able to feed their families."

Contact staff writer Megan DeMarco at 856-779-3990 or mdemarco@phillynews.com.