The holidays are coming, normally the season for giving and feasting. But with the economy slumping toward its third consecutive downturned December, more locals are struggling to feed themselves than at any point in well over a decade, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture and information collected from local organizations.

The Department of Agriculture's report, issued Monday, stated that 11 percent of Connecticut residents--or roughly 390,000 people--were "food insecure" in 2008, meaning they either couldn't afford balanced meals, had to cut meals, or had to forgo food altogether at some point in the year.

Across the nation, roughly 49 million people struggled with hunger, the report said, marking a 13-million person spike over the previous year and the highest total since data started being collected 14 years ago.

While the report didn't break down food insecurity for individual towns in Connecticut, a combination of anecdotal and related data suggests that the problem has far from eluded this town.

"This year we've experienced a couple times when our pantry shelves were quite empty," said Carla Miklos, executive director of Operation Hope. "It's not been due to lack of generosity; it's been due to an increase in people who are just struggling to make ends meet."

Operation Hope's pantry gave out enough food for 105,000 meals this past year, Miklos said, up from 80,000 meals the year before. Additionally, she said, the number of families with children who frequent the pantry jumped by 27 percent.

"We're lucky that in a town like Fairfield people do donate food and support their neighbors through the food pantry," she went on. "But the need is becoming much more than anybody anticipated. It's a little surprising in a town like ours. It's not the first thing people think of in a suburban area."

Living in such an expensive region forces tough decisions when income drops or jobs are lost. Especially when rent and the costs of food are staying stable or even rising.

According to Department of Labor statistics, Fairfield's unemployment rate hit 7.7 percent in September, up from an average of 4.6 percent in 2008 and 3.6 percent in 2007.

Meanwhile, neighboring towns are also facing tough times. The Gillespie Center Shelter, which houses one of Westport's main food pantries, reported a similar trend.

"Oh yeah, the pantry has been running out of food more quickly than ever before," said Pete Powell, president and CEO of Homes with Hope in Westport. "Over the past six months to a year, we've been giving food away to a lot of new clients."

The Gillespie Center Shelter is now serving about 35 people a night for dinner, Powell added, up from an average of about 25 people six months ago.

"We're not seeing a lot of people we don't know," he said. "We're seeing people more often. Whereas before we'd see someone two or three nights a week, now we're seeing them seven nights a week. They just don't have the income that they can choose to say `I'd like to eat at home tonight.'"

With only 17 beds, Powell added, less than half of those served for dinner can stay overnight. Though many don't need to.

Kate Lombardo, who directs the Foodbank of Lower Fairfield County, agrees. Her organization serves Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Wilton, Darien and Norwalk.

"We are constantly having people contact us for the first time for help," she said. "They don't know who to call for the first time. They try to say it's for a neighbor, a friend or a relative, when, in fact, it's for them."

In the past, she said, Wilton's pantry served 30 to 40 families. Now, however, it's serving over 100 families a week. New Canaan, she added, has never really needed a pantry at all. Now it has one that operates weekly.

WAYS TO HELP

The Foodbank of Lower Fairfield County is trying to collect 15,000 Thanksgiving turkeys for residents in its area, she said. Last year, it only needed about 7,000 turkeys. After a big recent purchase, she said, they're about 9,000 turkeys short as of Wednesday.

A ray of hope may lie in the number of food drives and fund raisers that are taking place in coming weeks:

"¢ On Saturday, the Republican Town Committee will collect non-perishables, toiletries and diapers at the Sherman Green on the corner of Post and Reef Roads between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Turkeys are also welcome, said Alexis Harrison, a director. (The committee will also collect tube socks and baby wipes for SoldierSocks.com, an organization that helps troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

"¢ On Monday, the 11th annual Jannotta Family Feed will take place at Bravo Restaurant, 1418 Post Road, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Last year, the Jannotta family said, over $17,000 was raised for the Connecticut Food Bank.

"¢ On Nov. 28, Operation Hope, the Community Theater Foundation and Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, will host a showing of the movie Elf at the Community Theater. A non-perishable food donation or $5 will serve as admission.

"¢ On Nov. 27 and 28, the second-annual ChowdaFest will take place at the Unitarian Church in Westport. Over 20 area restaurants will compete for best chowder and soup and everyone who pays the $5 admission can eat as much as desired and then judge. Like last year, the event will benefit the Connecticut Food Bank. Last year, said the event's chairman, Jim Keenan, enough food and cash was collected for over 7,000 meals. This year he hopes to double that.

Still, Carrington said that the problem is greater than what food drives and food banks alone can fix. She said the new report, while "astonishing," helps explain the increased demand she's seen for a number of years.

"What concerns me is that they don't reflect 2009," she said. "We know there's been an increased demand over 2008."

This year, Connecticut soup kitchens and food pantries have reported an average of 30 percent increase in demand for their services, she said. The distribution centers are delivering 35 tons of food a day, up from 30 tons a day last year. That equates to more than two tractor-trailers.

"In a state as small or as `rich' as ours, we can't justify that many people living with hunger," she said. "But it's going to take more than the food bank to see that everybody in this state and country has enough to eat. There's enough food out there. We produce enough food that everybody should be able to be fed."