The holidays are tradtionally the season for feasting. But with the economy ailing, more locals are struggling to feed themselves than at any point 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 forego 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 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.

"Oh yeah, the pantry has been running out of food more quickly than ever before," Pete Powell, president and CEO of Homes with Hope, said about the food pantry at the Gillespie Center.

The pantry, located at 45 Jesup Road, offers two pre-packaged bags of nonperishable food to visitors on a bi-weekly basis. When available, Powell said, it also offers as much perishable food away as one can carry. For more information, call the center at (203) 226-1191, ext. 2.

"Over the past six months to a year, we've been giving food away to a lot of new clients," Powell said.

Living in such an expensive region forces tough decisions on someone when income drops or employment is lost, Powell said. Especially when rents and the costs of food are staying stable or even rising.

According to Department of Labor statistics, Westport's unemployment rate in September hit 6.7 percent, up from an average of 4 percent in 2008 and 3 percent in 2007.

The Gillespie Center Shelter is now serving about 35 people a night for dinner, Powell said. That's up from an average of 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. Many don't need to.

Neighboring towns are also facing unfamiliar territory. Fairfield's main food pantry, Operation Hope, said it gave enough food for 105,000 meals this past year, up from 80,000 meals the year before. Additionally, it said, the number of families with children who frequent the pantry has jumped by 27 percent.

"This year we've experienced a couple times when our 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."

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 more than 100 families a week. New Canaan, she added, has never really needed a pantry at all. Now it has one that operates weekly.

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 recent big purchase, she said on Wednesday, the food bank is about 9,000 turkeys short.

A ray of hope may lie in the number of food drives and fund-raisers that have helped restock the shelves at the Gillespie Pantry, Powell said. The Jewish High Holy Days brought in one large supply. Then Bedford Middle School dropped off a heap of food from its own drive.

"But come January," Powell said, "we'll be in need of food desperately."

Hope on the horizon

Next Friday and Saturday, the second-annual ChowdaFest will take place at the Unitarian Church in Westport. More than 20 area restaurants will compete for best chowder and soup and everyone who pays $5 to participate will judge. The event will benefit the Connecticut Food Bank for the second year. Last year, said Jim Keenan, the event's chairman, enough food and cash was collected for more than 7,000 meals. This year he hopes to double that.

Still, Carrington underscores 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."