It’s 5:30 p.m., and there is food to be served as the people of New Haven slowly shuffle into the already packed dining hall of Center Church on Temple Street. As the sounds of a nearby piano filter into the hall, New Haven’s neediest greet each other with smiles as they sit down to eat a warm meal.

The heightened activity at this particular soup kitchen is not unique. A number of food distribution agencies throughout New Haven said they think this increase in the demand for food is part of a local and statewide trend.

“We’ve increased by 50 meals per week,” said Jo-Ann Veillette, director of St. Thomas More Soup Kitchen. “Even with our first opening meal in October we fed over 150 people. Soup kitchens that are already in place are just trying to have more food available for the people who come.”

The Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project has seen an increase in the number of people visiting the food pantry it operates in New Haven. Student Coordinator Diane Cieslak ’04 said she attributes this to increased unemployment and the effects of welfare reform.

“In 1996 President Clinton passed a five-year welfare program,” Cieslak said. “Last fall was the five-year cutoff for the program. A lot of people got kicked off welfare not knowing why.”

“There weren’t enough transition programs for these people. Around that time, our pantry noticed an increase in demand for our services,” she said.

This increase in demand for food is evident on the state level as well.

“Our agencies are reporting that there is greater demand for food,” said Rose Majestic, associate director of the Connecticut Food Bank, an organization that collects and distributes food to over 500 agencies throughout the state, including many in New Haven. In the past year, Connecticut Food Bank has increased the number of agencies it supplies food to by 15.

Nancy Carrington, the executive director of Connecticut Food Bank, pointed out the role the downturn in the economy has played on eliciting this trend.

“With the downturn in the economy, oftentimes it’s the lower-scale people in the economy who get dropped first,” she said. “Often they have to choose between paying the rent and buying food or buying medicine and paying for food. It’s a hard choice to make.”

Majestic said the agency feeds over 300,000 people very day throughout Connecticut; almost a quarter of them are children.

“We did send out a survey to our members and the response so far has been that they are seeing an increase in people coming either with the same amount of food and money being donated or a decrease in food and money being donated,” said Lucy Nolin, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut.

In the past year, the number of people nationwide receiving food stamps has increased by 2 million.

“I do know that food stamps have gone up in Connecticut over the past year — it has increased steadily,” Nolin said. She said, however, that has many as half of those eligible for food stamps are not getting them.

“Many people don’t know they are eligible for food stamps so the advocates are trying to make food stamps available to workers from out of the country working in the area and are often afraid to apply for help,” said David O’Sullivan, coordinator of the Community Soup Kitchen.

Still, O’Sullivan said, individuals do not get approved for as much money as they need from the food stamp program. He said the program was designed to reach families rather than individuals.

“I’m on unemployment,” said Jo, a New Haven resident and frequent visitor to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. “I was approved for food stamps for $10 a month. I live in a shelter and I have to pay child support. What do I do with $10 a month in food stamps?”

Despite the increase in demand for food, people like Jo who depend on soup kitchens for food said they have yet to suffer.

“There’s always food available,” said Elzy, a frequent visitor to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.

Elzy mentioned Yale’s effort to combat hunger in New Haven.

“They’re doing a lot now,” he said.