We?ve heard all sorts of bad news during the Great Recession, but few stories are more distressing than widespread hunger in a land of plenty.

Hunger in America is the subject of a new federal report released as the season of holiday feasting begins. It says that more people lack adequate food than at any time since the government began collecting data in 1995.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture?s findings are couched in bureaucratic terms such as ?food insecurity? and ?very low food security? but, euphemisms aside, the issue is malnourishment, a scourge usually associated with Third World countries, not the United States.

Food was short ? in some cases, scarce ? in the homes of 49 million people, including 17 million children, in 2008, according to the USDA?s annual survey. That?s about one in seven U.S. households ? a staggering 25 percent increase over 2007, when the recession began.

The report highlighted the impact on children, noting that 17 million youngsters lived in homes that experienced food shortages and often couldn?t afford what the federal government calls ?a thrifty meal plan.? About 1.1 million children went without meals due to a lack of food at some point in 2008, up from about 700,000 in 2007.

With poverty rising and unemployment in double-digits, the number of hungry people is believed to be even greater this year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the report ?a wake-up call for the country.?

But the impact of the recession, coupled with rising food prices, isn?t news to churches, food banks, soup kitchens and charities across the country that have been coping with growing demand.

David Goodman, the executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, is scheduled to testify today in Washington at a hearing called by the House Hunger Caucus. In his testimony, Goodman plans to highlight the impact on another group that has struggled during the economic downturn, senior citizens.

?In preparation for the trip,? he wrote in a column posted at pressdemocrat.com, ?I have been visiting food distributions throughout our community. The strongest impression that I have is that many seniors are not there because of something they did wrong. In fact, quite the opposite is true. They did everything right. They worked hard, protected our country, raised families and made our country strong.?

Many working families also are having trouble making ends meet and turning for help because their hours or wages have been reduced.

A record 36 million Americans are receiving food stamps, and 4.8 million households turned to private food pantries last year, compared to 3.9 million in 2007. If you can help those programs this holiday season, the need has never been greater.