While many Americans fret about the dwindling figures on the bottom line of their next retirement account statement, 36.2 million are often wondering where their next meal is coming from.

According to a 2007 hunger assessment released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hunger — or "food insecurity" as it is called now — is nothing short of pervasive: Just over 11 percent of U.S. households regularly don't get enough to eat. Slightly more than 4 percent, or another 11.9 million, experience "very low food security," which means they cut back or skip meals occasionally.

Utah is among states showing 12.5 percent of households (360,000 people) who regularly don't get enough to eat or who report skipping meals due to lack of resources. Single mothers and their children in Utah and nationwide are the most likely to go hungry.

Utah is 14th among states in overall food insecurity and fourth nationwide in the percentage of people experiencing "very low" food security.

The USDA defines food insecurity as difficulty in obtaining enough food to meet basic nutritional needs.

The number of people in the worst-off or the hungriest Americans category has risen by nearly a third since 2000, and the number of children considered to have "very low food insecurity" rose by more than 50 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the report.

Last year's survey found 35.5 million Americans who said they did not have enough money to get food for at least some period during the year.

As bad as the numbers sound, hunger is probably worse because the survey was conducted well before the economic crisis really got going.

News of the growing hunger crisis comes just around the corner from the country's annual day of gratitude and feasting, and just after area emergency food suppliers announced annual holiday food drives.

One thing is clear, emergency food pantries in Utah will not be hurting for business, and haven't been for some time. Statewide, requests for help the past year are up by 10 to 12 percent on average, and outlets reported nearly holiday season demand this past summer.

The food insecurity survey is worth noting and is instructive to the course of need, but it's just a new set of data on an old problem that is never fully addressed — poverty, said Bill Tibbitts, anti-hunger project director for Crossroads Urban Center.

"In the months since the economy began to sour, Crossroads' food pantry has seen a more than 20 percent increase in the number of people we serve per month," Tibbitts said.

The increase over last year is slight, but given the dramatic weakening of the economy in recent months, the number of food insecure households in 2008 is almost certainly going to be much higher, he added.

Economic troubles coincided with sharp increases in food prices, which are significant contributing factors that will no doubt push hungry household counts up considerably in next year's report, he said.

Tibbitts, the Utah Food Bank Network and other anti-hunger advocates said Monday that the USDA report will increase pressure in President-elect Barack Obama's campaign pledge to expand emergency food aid nationwide in an effort to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Among other findings in the report:

• The highest rates of food insecurity are in families headed by single mothers (30.2 percent), black households (22.2 percent), Hispanic households (20.1 percent), and households with incomes below the official poverty line (37.7 percent).

• States with families reporting the highest prevalence of food insecurity during 2005-2007 were Mississippi (17.4 percent), New Mexico (15 percent), Texas (14.8 percent) and Arkansas (14.4 percent).

• The highest growth in food insecurity over the past 9 years came in Alaska and Iowa, both of which saw a 3.7 percent increase in families who struggled to eat adequately or had substantial food disruptions.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com