BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Carolyn Stanley, a single mother with five children, receives $327 in food stamps each month to feed her family. With prices for staples like bread and cheese going ever higher, each month is harder than the last.
She buys hot dogs over higher-quality meat and feeds her kids cereal, but even with other government support she often has to seek help from local churches and from friends.
"The food runs out somewhere within the middle of the month, or getting close to the end," said Stanley, 49. "It is not easy. I pray."
While food inflation is causing tensions and riots around the world, even the affluent United States is being touched. Stories such as Stanley's are becoming more common as Americans increasingly turn to food stamps and other programs to make ends meet.
At a cost of about $39 billion to the U.S. Treasury, nearly one in 10 Americans -- 28 million people -- are expected next year to use food stamps, which would be the highest enrolment in the program apart from a spike after the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005.
U.S. food prices are expected to rise by up to 5 percent this year, part of a global trend driven fueled by consumption in rapidly developing countries such as China, adverse weather, and the funneling of food crops to make biofuels.
"People don't want to talk about hunger in America because that's not supposed to have happened. Didn't we take care of that a generation or two ago?" said Kevin McGuire, Food Stamp director for Maryland. "Well, not really." The number of beneficiaries jumped 12 percent in Maryland from a year ago.
The crunch comes as the economy takes a sharp turn for the worse and many see the number of people receiving food stamps as advance indicator of an economic slump.
Today, food stamp officials are not only watching more people apply for the benefits, they're seeing more of them come from the working poor, people whose low-wage jobs still leave them eligible under the program's strict income caps.
"Having a job isn't enough anymore. Having two or three jobs isn't enough anymore," said Marcia Paulson, spokeswoman for Great Plains Food Bank in North Dakota, where nearly half the households on food stamps have at least one adult with a job.
"Our pantries are overwhelmed," said Diane Doherty, director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, which helps the needy find food assistance and sign up for food stamps.
Doherty said people's food stamps are running out more quickly due to higher prices -- often within two weeks. More than ever are receiving stamps for the first time, she said.
"They're just not able to make ends meet when they're trying to raise a family on these meager salaries, with the cost of housing and now with the cost of gas," she said.
Maryland's McGuire is one official who believes that the annual adjustments in food stamp dollars have been inadequate.
Nationally, the average benefit per person early this year was about $100 per month -- around $1 a meal.
The government will adjust that payout in June, but people won't see their benefits change until October.
Stanley, who receives no child support for her daughters, the youngest of whom is in the first grade, hopes that federal officials will act more quickly.
"If you've ever lived the crunch of that poverty level, you would understand that people need more," Stanley said.
Program officials are quick to stress that food stamps were never intended to make up a family's entire food budget, and point to other programs that can help needy families -- school lunches, after-school programs, and food banks.
"We firmly believe that no American should go hungry," said Kate Houston, a deputy undersecretary at USDA.
The growing rolls of food stamp beneficiaries is a mixed picture, Houston said, reflecting in part a success in reaching out to eligible people who hadn't received help in the past.
"The program is designed to expand and contract based on economic conditions," she said.
House and Senate lawmakers, forging a final compromise on a giant agriculture law, now plan to add over $10 billion to the food stamp program over the next decade, raising the standard income deduction, boosting the minimum benefit to $14 a month, an increase of $4, and giving more to food pantry donations.
Food stamp officials are counseling people on how to make their stamps last as long as possible -- buying ground beef or other meat when it's on sale and freezing it, for example.
That may be cold comfort for people like Sandra Fowler, 42, a mother in suburban Chicago who recently applied for food stamps, and describes her situation as increasingly desperate.
Fowler is months behind on mortgage payments on her house and is going through a messy divorce.
"It will feed my children, at least. I've been going to a food pantry, waiting in line. The choices are really limited -- there might be some eggs, canned goods," she said.
Most experts predict that high crop and fuel prices will linger for at least two to three years, and sky-high oil and gasoline prices are unlikely to abate any time soon.
Even in the country known as the 'land of plenty,' McGuire said, the cost crunch "affects literally at a gut level what's going on" for the less fortunate. "We're going to need to start stitching the safety net a little bit bigger."
Reporting by Missy Ryan; Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago and Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Russell Blinch and Eddie Evans.