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KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A sign outside the Shawnee Community Center states a clear goal: "A World Without Hunger." But inside, that goal is getting harder to reach.
Senior citizens, young parents and middle-aged working poor were among those lining up at the suburban center this week, quietly collecting handouts of pasta, canned vegetables, peanut butter and other staples to stave off hunger.
"We are seeing more people this Christmas than last Christmas for sure," said Shawnee Community Center volunteer Verta Morris. "A lot of people are hungry."
Long lines are common sights these days at food pantries across recession-hit America.
U.S. food banks have reported a 30 percent rise in requests for emergency food assistance, according to a report issued last week by Feeding America, which supports 63,000 agencies and is the nation's largest hunger relief organization.
The group said the situation is expected to grow worse in 2009 amid rising unemployment, and a consortium of charity groups are calling on Washington for more federal assistance. U.S. employers cut 533,000 jobs in November alone, the highest monthly number in 34 years.
"We're in a crisis. Absolutely," said Feeding America spokeswoman Maura Daly.
Food assistance groups said many families who show up at their doors were recently making it on their own. But two years of rising food and energy costs ate into what little safety net those families had. Now, as jobs losses rise, many who were making ends meet can no longer do so.
"People have just been stretched to the breaking point. They have to turn to someone for help," said Karen Siebert, spokeswoman for Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City, which provides food for 420 food pantries in a 13-county area and has seen demand jumped 50 percent this year.
Debbie and Victor Turner, both 48, were among many waiting their turn on Monday in Shawnee for food supplies, which this week included a frozen turkey as a holiday treat.
Victor once worked in construction but he and his wife now clean houses for $65 to $100 a house. They collect and sell scrap metal to cover their rent and care for three grandchildren.
"Without this, we could be near starvation," Debbie said.
In big cities and small towns, the story is the same.
At St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix, about 180,000 meals a day are being distributed ahead of the Christmas holiday.
Unemployed landscaper Pete Munoz picked up food boxes and a turkey from the Phoenix food bank. Munoz said this was the first Christmas he had needed such assistance.
"At least now we have something to eat," said Munoz. "I hope things get a lot better work-wise next year."
The North Texas Food Bank, with demand up more than 25 percent, will distribute 780,000 meals over the holidays.
At Cincinnati's Freestore Foodbank, which feeds 160,000 people a year in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, demand was up about 20 percent, according to spokeswoman Myrita Craig.
"It's really kind of scary to know that that many people are feeling the impact of the economy to the extent that they need emergency food," Craig said.
Food assistance groups said as Congress debates economic recovery measures, including bailouts for Wall Street and the auto industry, Congress and the White House also need to push forward a series of urgent hunger relief measures.
Feeding America said an immediate increase in food stamp benefits is needed, along with an increase of $150 million to buy, store and distribute U.S. commodities to feed the hungry.
The group has also asked for $15 million for an already approved but not funded program to deliver food to rural poor.
"Seventy-two percent of our food banks reported they are unable to adequately meet the needs of their clients," Daly said. "It is really becoming more and more difficult every day."
Catholic Charities USA, which said it cannot keep food pantry shelves stocked due to higher demand, is meeting with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team asking for emergency federal aid to nonprofits like food banks and homeless shelters to help feed and shelter the needy.
Catholic Charities said that in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, the charity has seen an increase of more than 400 percent in requests for emergency food assistance.
"Addressing this crisis ... must be the first priority of the incoming Congress and the new administration," said Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Ed Stoddard in Dallas and Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati; Editing by Peter Bohan and David Wiessler