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The recession may officially be over, but Sonia Cruz of Issaquah, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, still finds herself having to say “no” to many things.

No to the kids’ request to go to the movies with friends. No to $1 Redbox movies. And definitely no to those trips to Cold Stone Creamery for ice cream.

“There’s no way we can afford that anymore,” she says.

Cutting back became a necessity for many American families during and after the recession. But what the Cruz family and a growing number of other once-thriving middle-class families didn’t expect was to find themselves qualifying for — and needing — the support of federally funded food assistance programs.

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After job losses, home foreclosures, mounting debt and bills some can no longer afford to pay, families such as theirs have become part of the new face of hunger in America.

Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity with a network of more than 200 food bank partners, says there is a growing problem with suburban poverty, “where new clients are individuals who have never needed to rely on the charitable food system.”

Hunger has been a challenge in the U.S., even when the economy is running on all cylinders.

At the end of the economic boom in 2007, 13 million people or about 11% of all households were considered “food insecure,” the official term used by the government to define one’s inability to access an adequate amount of nutritious food at times during the year.

“Not everyone who is food insecure is literally going hungry,” says Mark Nord, sociologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. “Some are able to head off hunger by reducing the quality and variety of their diets. But if food insecurity is severe or prolonged, it is likely to result in hunger.”

Record number seeking food assistance

When the recession took hold in 2008, the number of Americans who were considered food insecure spiked to 17 million, the highest level recorded since the Department of Agriculture (USDA) began monitoring food security in 1995. It has remained close to that level since — the 2009 number, released last November, was 17.4 million.

With that has come the increase in need among groups that were historically less vulnerable to hunger, according to the USDA’s Household Food Security in theUnited States annual report.

Providing a buffer against this need, a record number of 44 million or one in seven Americans (half of whom are children) are currently enrolled in the government’s largest nutritional safety net program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, according to the USDA. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP is federally funded, but administered by states.

Additionally, government-affiliated food banks and other community and faith-based food pantries and soup kitchens served more than 37 million Americans, according to Feeding America’s 2010 hunger study. This figure is up 46% from 2006.

“This is a record number of Americans who are voluntarily seeking emergency food assistance,” says Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, charged with administering the 15 federally funded nutrition programs. “Not since the Great Depression has this kind of assistance been as urgently needed as now.”

Buck doesn’t stop at government’s door

Despite those numbers, many struggling middle-class families don’t know they are entitled to these benefits, even those who own a home or have a job.

Just one-third of people who qualify for a major federal nutrition program are currently enrolled to receive their eligible benefits, according to the USDA.

A study released in March by Feeding America addressed the concept of a meal gap — the amount of meals needed to feed every single hungry person in the U.S.

Starting with government statistics and food price data from the Nielsen Co., the “Map the Meal Gap” study worked with researchers to estimate local community hunger at the county level in all 50 states.

“We know hunger exists in every state across the nation, but it looks different from county to county, and therefore, so do the solutions,” Escarra says. By understanding hunger at the local level, she explains, more effective solutions can be developed.

The buck doesn’t just stop at the government or food pantry’s door. There is a role for corporate America to play, Concannon adds.

“Many companies are already doing a lot, but more needs to be done,” he said. “Whether through their financial support or weighing in with their respective state governments, we’re hoping to get more of the business community involved.”

There’s even a role for the hungry in closing the meal gap as well, Cruz says.

“I recently helped a friend get enrolled in WIC (the federally funded food assistance program for Women, Infants and Children). That’s what people need to be doing: stepping up to help others get help.”