DELANCO, N.J. -- Appropriately, the Catholic Charities food bank here is tucked in the corner of a shopping mall. Its clients come from generally affluent suburbs; many felt disbelief when hard times compelled them, for the first time, to seek help.
"Of course I'd never gone to any of these things - I didn't even know they existed," said Norma Bacino, who resorted to the food bank after her husband left, leaving four preteen sons in her care.
Months of steady assistance have made Bacino cheerfully grateful: "If I had a million dollars, I'd give it to them." But her first visit to pick up donated food was difficult.
"You're down and out, you're apprehensive," Bacino said. "Even though you realize you're not the only one, it's culture shock."
Bacino, 44, is part of a phenomenon occurring at urban, rural and suburban food banks nationwide - a surge of first-time clients who never before considered themselves needy but suddenly, because of a layoff or other challenge, cannot pay their rent or living costs.
"Our affiliates all tell us, 'We've never seen so many people come in who we've never seen before, who say they need help just this one time,"' said Kevin Seggelke, CEO of the Denver-based Food Bank of the Rockies.
Many of the Denver-area newcomers recently lost good-paying jobs with high-tech firms, and - unemployed or forced into low-paid work - fell behind on mortgage and car payments, Seggelke said.
According to the Agriculture Department, 11 percent of U.S. families - encompassing 34.9 million people - are "food insecure," meaning they lack the means to ensure themselves of healthy meals and are vulnerable to at least a mild form of chronic malnutrition. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 25 cities found that demand at food banks rose 17 percent in 2003, with Denver and Trenton, N.J., experiencing the biggest surges in families seeking help.
Catholic Charities of Trenton has experienced a 40 percent increase in demand for emergency food aid this year - including a 43 percent rise in Delanco and other suburban towns of Burlington County, where nearly 600 families a month are getting help.
Many families first seek help with back rents, mortgages and utility fees, but Joyce Campbell - director of Catholic Charities Emergency Services in Delanco - said her agency lacks the cash to help with such requests.
"We suggest they come into the program to get some food and clothing and save their money to pay their bills," she said.
The storeroom adjoining Campbell's office resembles a modest grocery store - minus soda, beer and snack food. The shelves are stacked with soup cans and babyfood jars; rows of grocery bags are stuffed with items intended to cover 10 days' worth of meals.
Among those getting help from Campbell's agency are Pamela Reed-Loy, her husband, and three school-age daughters. They have been living in a motel room in nearby Maple Shade for more than a year - losing their apartment after legal squabbles with their landlord, lacking funds to cover the initial costs of renting a new place.
Reed-Loy, 42, said she is unable to work, needing free time to deal with her 6-year-old daughter's frequent asthma attacks. Her husband, Archie Loy, earns $18 an hour as a mechanic, but much of the take-home pay goes to pay the motel bill.
"It's stressful, living all in one room - you can't get away from anybody," Reed-Loy said. "The kids get upset because their friends can't come over to spend the night."
Reed-Loy has become a steady client of the food bank in nearby Delanco. Without the extra two bags of groceries a month, "we'd have been up a creek without a paddle," she said.
"I know people who won't go - who don't want to be seen," she said. "But why not? I'd never let my kids go hungry. Don't let your pride get in the way."
Campbell said housing costs are the biggest single factor behind the rising demand for food aid. Some families report spending more than two-thirds of their income on rent. "The government needs to step up, and build some new low-income housing," she said.
The so-called "working poor" make up an increasing portion of food bank clientele, according to Sue Hofer of America's Second Harvest. She said about 40 percent of the people getting help from the Chicago-based organization's affiliates come from households like Pamela Reed-Loy's, with at least one member working.
"Many lost good-paying jobs and are working at new jobs - sometimes two or three at a time - that pay a lot less, with no benefits," she said. "If a tire blows on one of their cars, they can't eat."
Hofer said her organization, through more than 200 regional food banks, distributed 1.8 billion pounds of food last year, up from 1.4 billion pounds in 2002. More than 23 million people benefited.
"A lot of them are people we used to see once in a great while on an emergency basis who are now using food pantries as a chronic crutch," she said. "These are people doing everything right, playing by the rules; they left welfare, they're pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and they still can't feed their kids."
While very few Americans, even the poorest, risk starvation, Hofer said many wind up with long-term health problems as they cut financial corners.
"You can't negotiate the rent, or the cost of a gallon of gas, or the doctor bills," she said. "You can adjust how much you spend on food, but what a horrible choice to have to make."
Tough choices abound for Frank Semens, who lost his job at a Denver food warehouse earlier this year and resorted to moving into his mother's town house along with his wife, who is temporarily unable to work because of carpal tunnel syndrome, and two adolescent children.
The family has been using a food bank for three months, obtaining canned and dry goods to supplement meat and produce they buy themselves. "Sometimes you feel like you're under water," said Semens, 34. "I wish it were easier to get a new job - I'd love to be a mechanic, but I can't afford the school."
The demand at food banks has increased even as government officials try to reach more people with the federal food stamp program, which subsidizes food purchases for 23 million low-income Americans every month.
The food stamp caseload rose by 36 percent from 2000 to 2003. However, Hofer said 40 percent of those eligible for the program don't use it, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes because they deem the application process too onerous.
The Urban Institute, in a recent report, urged government officials to intensify outreach efforts, reduce red tape and eliminate any sense of stigma for recipients.
"The culture at food stamp offices needs to change from one that primarily focuses on preventing food stamp fraud to one that encourages families to use this nutrition assistance," the report said.
Seggelke said staff and volunteers working with the Food Bank of the Rockies are urged to be supportive of all clients - particularly families.
"It might be the most humbling thing a parent can do, to go ask for food for your children, especially when you're not used to doing that," Seggelke said. "We'd like every client treated as we'd want to be treated ourselves - with a great deal of respect."
In Trenton, that credo applies even to single adults like Arthur Baker, 56, a job-seeking ex-convict who has been obtaining food from Catholic Charities of Trenton.
"It's very hard to get into the work force, especially if you've been living in the fast lane," he said. "I get turned down all the time."
He appreciates the companionship extend to him at the food bank, and reciprocates with stints as a volunteer.
"If you don't ask for help, it's very unlikely you're going to get it," he said. "Some of my old associates are too proud to come in. I tell them, 'I'm going to eat."'
On the Net:
America's Second Harvest: http://www.secondharvest.org