With the exception of one round of unemployment pay, Rick Hull had never received any government help.
But then he hurt his back, his wife lost her job, the family became homeless and his wife left him and their two young children.
In a financial crunch, Hull swallowed his pride and in March applied for food stamps.
"Put my mind at ease because I knew I could feed the kids," he said of the food stamps. "I don't want to be in the system. These two kids, they are my life."
Hull, his 4-year-old son, Jordan, and 17-month-old daughter, Harley, are among the increasing number of Kansans and Americans receiving food stamps.
After a seven-year decline, the number of Americans on food stamps has shot up 39 percent since 2000, according to federal data.
The increase in Kansas has been more dramatic. In the state, the number of residents receiving food stamps has increased 57 percent since 2000. In Douglas County, the number has increased 36 percent.
Part of that increase was fueled by states' increased efforts to enroll a greater portion of eligible people, putting people back onto the rolls who had been knocked off during welfare reform efforts in the 1990s.
But most of the increase, social workers say, simply comes from the growing number of Americans unable to feed themselves without help.
In Kansas, the number of people receiving food stamps is close to pre-welfare-reform levels. About 186,000 Kansans per month were receiving food stamps in 1995, before reform requirements took effect.
But the latest figures for 2004, up through October, show nearly 174,000 Kansans were receiving food stamps. That's a dramatic increase over the monthly average of 110,619 people in 2000.
In Douglas County, 2004 numbers show nearly 4,000 people receiving food stamps. That's 1,000 more than in 2000.
Even with the increases, more than four of 10 Kansans eligible for food stamps are not receiving them, according to a report released in November.
Hull has worked as a mechanic, welder and truck driver. He said he understood those who say people shouldn't depend on the government.
"I probably said some things like that," he said. "I was out working every day."
But working as a truck driver three years ago, Hull said, he hurt his back. In summer 2003, Hull's wife lost her job. She had been working and he was staying home with the children because of his health problems.
After his wife lost her job, the couple lost their home Kansas City and ended up living with friends and relatives.
Hull's wife left him and the children in February and joined a traveling carnival, he said. They divorced shortly afterward. He has custody of the children.
Relatives recommended he move to Lawrence because "they'd never met anybody other than nice people from out here," Hull said of Lawrence.
Hull applied for food stamps in March in Kansas City and moved to Lawrence in April. He stayed at The Salvation Army at first with his son and baby daughter.
"I came out here with a quarter tank of gas and one diaper," he said. "Not being able to feed them or do nothing, not have diapers or clean clothes, makes you feel pretty low."
Through social service agencies, he got an apartment and will get medical care. He works part-time as a janitor and does volunteer work 20 hours a week.
Fewer jobs, more hunger
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in November that 36.3 million Americans, more than one in 10, were at risk of hunger. That figure was the highest the agency had recorded since it began keeping a tally in 1995.
A skyrocketing number of people have come to use the food pantry at the Douglas County office of the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., 1 Riverfront Plaza. The Ottawa-based nonprofit organization, with offices in nine counties, aims to help the poor become self-sufficient.
Some people have come to her food pantry after losing fairly well-paying jobs in layoffs, said ECKAN human services coordinator Jeanette Collier.
"I see that every month," she said.
The food pantry at ECKAN used to see about 15 families a month. That is, until the offices moved in April from 1600 Haskell Ave. to downtown Lawrence.
Since the move, five to 10 families who have previously used the food pantry come each month, as do 100 to 150 families who had never used the food pantry before.
"We were totally unprepared for what we've seen over here," Collier said. "It was unbelievable."
She attributes part of the increase to being farther away from the Pelathe Community Resource Center, 1423 Haskell Ave., and Penn House, 1035 Pa., which also have food pantries.
Collier also said she thought there were not enough permanent, full-time retail or factory jobs in Douglas County.
Since 2001, the nation has lost 2 million jobs. Even after the national unemployment rate peaked in 2003, then began to ease, the country remains 585,000 jobs short of where it was in 2001, economists say.
Additionally, economists say, the unemployment rate doesn't really reflect true economic well-being. Many Americans work two jobs in order to make ends meet. If they lost one job, that may place them in the ranks of the working poor, but they don't show up as unemployed.
Hull says he understands those who worry that some people abuse government help.
"You always have them thoughts of taxpayers' money going to those lazy people," he said.
He says he's grateful to ECKAN for helping him and his family.
"I've had a pretty rough time," he said. "Jeanette and the city of Lawrence have done the world for me."
-- J-W wire services contributed to this story.