And that may mean less fare at food pantries from Los Angeles to San Bernardino -- and no turkeys on the table for many needy families.
"This is going to be a lean holiday," said Michael Flood, president of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, a warehouse that supplies emergency provisions to 640 agencies across L.A. County. "The demand for food has outstripped supplies.
"It means smaller -- at times spare -- food baskets at pantries. Or at times being turned away.
And that doesn't include 564 agencies on a waiting list to receive food that will get none, he said.
While the Great Recession may be over, the demand for food aid has not diminished, providers say. The urgent need, plus less government help or private food donations have left some area food banks and pantries with less to give away over the holidays, they say.
That worries people who often have no other means to keep themselves properly fed, especially during the holidays.
"I'm on disability, so it's really important to me," said Teresa Morgan, 62, of Newhall, who was picking up a sack of food with beans, pasta and canned veggies from a local food pantry recently. "Without it, I'd probably go hungry."
The United Way of Greater Los Angeles has seen no letup in emergency food demand since the recession ended, despite the slight drop in unemployment.
"There's definitely a food shortage," said Pamela Wright. "More people are using food pantries than ever before. They're becoming more mainstream."
The Los Angeles food bank reports its pre-holiday larder is at its lowest point in recent history, with on-hand foodstuffs averaging 42 percent less than last year. The Second Harvest Food Bank in the Inland Empire reports food leaves the warehouse as fast as it comes in.
At the Valley Food Bank in Pacoima, which serves 14 local pantries, private food donations are also down. Last year at this time, it had between 200 to 300 turkeys for Thanksgiving.
But this year?
"We have none. Zero. Not one," said Will Hernandez, executive director of the San Fernando Valley bank, who was hoping for a shipment from a local American Indian tribe.
Recession pushed demand
During the worst of the economic downturn, one in seven Southern California residents was without a job. Families who sometimes had to choose between hunger and paying the bills flocked to local food pantries, said providers, who saw double the number of down-and-out.
More than 1,000 food banks, pantries and agencies across the region scrambled to supply emergency food, making appeals for tax-deductible donations from local grocers, manufacturers and farmers.
Food distribution doubled to a near-record 60 million pounds last year in Los Angeles, hitting 25 million pounds in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Many began offering fresh fruits and vegetables, a first in more health-conscious food giveaways.
Since their inception, food banks have served as way stations for millions of pounds of surplus food donated by private-sector markets, manufacturers and farmers.
The federal government provides up to 25 percent of food banks' larders through two programs. The United States Department of Agriculture Emergency Food Assistance Program buys tens of millions of pounds for each state. The USDA also supplies "bonus" commodities -- or pantry staples made from meat, grains and produce it has purchased to prop up farm prices.
The problem, providers say, is that farm prices have soared during a year-long drought across the Midwest. As the government bought less food, bonus commodity giveaways -- from canned carrots to peanut butter, to beans, rice and meat -- fell.
At Feeding America, which has 200 food banks across the nation and Southern California serving 37 million people, deliveries of such government food dropped 40 percent or more. Many banks, in turn, have solicited more retail donations to fill the gap.
"Our food banks are seeing the impact of less bonus buys," said Carrie Calvert, Feeding America's director of tax and commodities policy, in Washington, D.C. "A lot of our agencies are having a tough time. I think we will see an improvement between January and May. But long term, food price inflation will have an impact, and commodities will cost more."
Across the nation, the USDA commodity bonus food buys dipped from 420.7 million pounds last year to 370.9 million pounds scheduled this year, a 12 percent drop, according to a USDA spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the reason for the decrease.
State allotments differ widely and such food can take up to six months to reach the poor. A $170 million USDA purchase of chicken, pork, lamb and catfish in August isn't expected to hit the food banks till next year.
"There's never enough food. Never enough. We're always struggling," said Sue Sidler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, which represents 41 large banks across the state. "The amount of food available doesn't begin to meet the need."
At the L.A. Regional Food Bank, commodity foods were slashed in half, Flood said. This cut out 8 million pounds of surplus food -- or the equivalent of 6.6 million meals to 640 agencies.
At the Second Harvest Food Bank serving San Bernardino and Riverside counties, food supplies were barely enough to supply 400 agencies serving up to 400,000 residents, up from 250,000 in early 2009.
"There's not enough food right now," said Tracylyn Sharrit, the food bank's director of marketing and development, who grew up in a family so poor in what is now Moreno Valley they Dumpster-dived to ward off hunger. "At the pantries I talk to, the lines are getting longer, and the food baskets getting shorter.
"They don't have enough food for people at the end of the line."
On an up note, the Riverside-based food warehouse reports its federal food shipments, which make up to 20 percent of supplies, rose from around seven truckloads a month last year to nine truckloads in October.
But then it got a whopping 26 trucks this month, half of which has been delivered, said Daryl Brock, its executive director.
"It's changed dramatically," said Brock, who couldn't explain the bounty compared to other banks. "It looks like we've got enough" for the holidays.
L.A. food banks short
In Los Angeles, however, food providers are worried.
In front of a 16,000-square-foot warehouse in a gritty industrial zone east of downtown, a logjam of agency trucks and cars lined up outside L.A. Regional Food Bank awaiting food.
Inside, an small army of volunteers sorted through pallets of donations, gleaning good food from bad according to expiration dates. During the holidays, hundreds more volunteers are expected to arrive from companies such as FedEx, Wells Fargo and Nestle.
"I feel bad, because all this food is going to waste," said Bernadette Baca, 19, of Compton, tossing out expired salsa, Greek yogurt and American cheese.
In another sorting area, 28-year-old Josue Sierra held up a can of black olives -- the difference between a poor bland meal and a poor savory meal, he said. Unemployed two years after he lost his job selling furniture in Orange County, he now works for the bank.
Just 30 days before, he was lining up at food pantries for his monthly grocery sack.
"When I hold this can of olives, I picture a family, most likely in an apartment, maybe the dad lost his job, they're on general relief," said Sierra, of Los Angeles. "They could eat this (in)... what could be antipasti.
"It's vital, because condiments are expensive."
Last year, the lofty storehouse was stuffed with an average 3.3 million pounds. This year, it holds an average 1.9 million, less than a two-week supply, according to a food bank report.
Moreover, the bank provided food for 330,000 Angelenos in summer 2011, compared with 267,000 this past summer, a 19 percent drop.
Flood explained the overall decrease wasn't because of fewer needy residents, but because there's less food to go around.
"We're not seeing that need has decreased 19 percent," he said, "but that food supplies have tightened. There has certainly been some job growth, but the food supply isn't keeping up, because of USDA."
That impacts local pantries, like the Santa Clarita Food Pantry, which doubled its recipients to 6,000 a month since 2007. It's one of the few to offer fresh milk. Last November, its shelves were full, with turkey vouchers for more than 400 families.
This year its storeroom is two-thirds empty, officials say, with 100 fewer birds for the poor.
"We're short," said Belinda Crawford, executive director of the Newhall pantry northwest of Los Angeles. "We're giving 80 percent of what we normally give.
"The bottom line is, much as I hate to say it, some families may go without turkeys this year."
Some are going hungry
If L.A. needs more emergency food, it has cast its eyes on the vast California bread basket, where billions of pounds of blemished produce never make it to the market -- but is presently too costly to ship for charity.
From Santa Clarita to San Bernardino, the lack of food pantry supplies means some go hungry.
In San Bernardino, Henry Rivera had a great job in an auto warehouse. Then his dad got sick, and Rivera lost his job to take care of him before he died. Forced to live in a rented garage, he could barely afford to eat.
"Some days, I'd have a little bit to eat," said Rivera, 47, of San Bernardino, who now volunteers at a soup kitchen and pantry at Mary's Mercy Center, a Catholic charity, where he will slice the turkey for Thanksgiving. "Or on weekends, I wouldn't eat.
"It's hard to describe -- you feel really down. Depressed. It's just the worst thing in the world."