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MONROE, Ga./DOUGLAS, Arizona (Reuters) - In the richest nation on earth, a rising number of people line up for free food because they are struggling to put meals on the table at home.
Demand at food banks in the United States is up 15 percent to 20 percent over last year and many food banks are having difficulty coping, according to America's Second Harvest, the largest U.S. food bank provider with 200 in its network.
Food bank networks procure nonperishable and fresh produce from suppliers, then stock it in warehouses before distributing it via a chain of community food banks across the country.
The total number of people who use them is not known but the upward trend is one sign of a U.S. economic downturn in which soaring fuel costs and the rising price of other basic goods have pushed many people on low incomes or without jobs into hardship.
The banks say more people with steady jobs are turning up at their centers to wait in line, fill out forms and collect rations of free or reduced-price food. In a parallel development demand for government food stamps is also rising.
"Having a (low wage) 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 receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults.
Olga Medina's story illustrates the dilemma for many on low wages who said they considered their need to resort to free food a humiliation in a country that prides itself on independence and stresses work as a sure route to success.
Medina works full time providing homecare for old people in Douglas, on Arizona's border with Mexico. She said she earns $1,100 dollars a month with which she also supports her parents and a sick son, but is unable to make ends meet due to rising food and fuel costs.
Most weeks she forages for milk, fruit and vegetables in dumpsters outside the Safeway supermarket. One day last month she waited in line with 147 others outside the Douglas Area Food Bank for a grocery handout because she had no bread.
"We have to put up with a lot of humiliation just to survive," she said, putting on a pair of sunglasses to hide tears. "It's not dignified but we are hungry and hunger is ugly."
At a giant warehouse in Monroe, Georgia, scores of volunteers and paid workers using fork lifts or pallet jacks load food onto big trucks -- everything from carrots to frozen spare ribs to canned goods.
The warehouse is part of Angel Food Ministries, a national organization headquartered in Monroe that offers food at half price to people who need it. A typical food pack contains $60 of family groceries and is sold for $30.
The organization, which is linked to a church, purchases food in bulk at a discount and passes the savings on to 500,000 families a month who use its service in 35 states, distributing through a network of churches.
Its founder, Joseph Wingo, argued that perceptions that the U.S. economy was doing better than is reported failed to take into account a different reality for millions of Americans, not least senior citizens.
"Go into any community that has been devastated by job losses and you will find there's more people (struggling to provide food) than you think," said Wingo, who set up the organization in response to demand in Monroe.
For Selena Lewis, 28, who owns a boutique in Alpharetta, Georgia, going to the North Atlanta Community Food Bank brings an added irony -- just last year she donated some of her money to the bank as an act of charity.
But the downturn has stifled demand at her boutique and some days she makes just a single sale, not enough to pay off debts and feed herself and her son and leading to a dilemma about whether to close the boutique and seek other work.
"I don't want to give up on my dream because the hardest thing to do is to start," said Lewis who said she gave up a high-paying corporate marketing job to start the boutique.
Her story illustrates how small business owners are caught up in the downturn, but problems exist at the other end of the spectrum of age and opportunity.
Standing in line at the Douglas food bank was Brenda Salazar, a neatly dressed woman of retirement age, who worked for 25 years as a nursing assistant in the city.
Now disabled, she receives $944 a month in benefits and food stamps, but after paying rent, utilities and gassing up her car, she had just $16 for food to tide her over.
"I bought a gallon of milk, I bought a bag of green onions and a bag of grapes. It was $17. It was three items .... Now I have to pray that God will put gas in my car."
Reporting by Matthew Bigg and Tim Gaynor; Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Tom Brown