LOCAL FOOD BANKS and shelters don't need the Labor Department to tell them that jobless claims have reached a seven-year high. They can just look at the growing lines outside their doors.

“You ride out these natural disasters and economic downturns, and you kind of feel there's a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Eric Cooper, executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank. “It seems right now the tunnel is so dark. It's uncertain when there's going to be relief.”

His organization, which aided 315,869 families in the fiscal year that ended in June, saw an 85 percent increase from the previous year—even before thousands of Hurricane Ike evacuees arrived in San Antonio in September.

Other cities report similar stories. In a local impact survey of 180 food banks conducted by America's Second Harvest, now known as Feeding America, last spring, 99 percent of the respondents saw an increase in the number of people being served compared to the year before. The average increase was about 20 percent.