Thousands of families are seeking food grants and charity every year in the centre of New Zealand's lush dairy farming heartland, Hamilton.
A five-year doctoral study by Waikato University sociologist Dr Kellie McNeill has found that charities served 25,000 free meals, Work and Income gave out 12,000 food grants and foodbanks gave out 4000 food parcels in Hamilton in 2006-07.
That was at a time when the economy was booming. National statistics suggest the recession may have roughly doubled those numbers since then.
Dr McNeill, 40, spent her first 15 years in the Hamilton suburb of Fairfield. She was disturbed when she moved back there in 2005 after 20 years away and a young man knocked on her door on a Sunday afternoon asking for food.
"I ate my own dinner that night wondering about the nature and prevalence of foodlessness in my community," she said.
"What had happened in my old neighbourhood that people were now reduced to door-knocking to meet basic needs?"
She gathered the statistics from charities and officials and was surprised particularly by the number of free community meals. Six churches took turns to provide meals on every day of the week except Saturdays, serving an average of 491 meals a week between them.
She also interviewed 10 people who ate the meals or received food grants or food parcels. She found the meals were important to counteract the way hunger isolated people socially.
"I'm not in a situation where I can have people over home to eat," said Sheryl, 32, a solo mother with one son living on $130 a week after rent and other fixed costs.
"I don't go out that often," said Christina, 38, who had only $50 left over from her sickness benefit after rent and other bills.
"If it's an activity around food, like a pot luck dinner or something, then that's not a form of socialising that's open to me any more."
Dr McNeill said it was paradoxical because social networks could help people cope with poverty through sharing both food and friendship, but people on low incomes felt they had to cut themselves off from their friends.
"That's one of the reasons the community meals and school breakfasts are really important, because there isa social aspect to them."
Dr McNeill, a mother of two children now aged 18 and 14, spent 12 years on the domestic purposes benefit and knows what it means to be "food stressed".
She has also fostered children and remembers one boy who took a long time to get used to knowing where the next meal was coming from.
"It took a year and a half to stop him being really anxious about food."
Last week she watched a woman in her local supermarket in "absolute angst as the items went up on the cash register".
"It got to the last two and she had to put them aside."
She said eliminating hunger, even in "one of the richest agricultural and pastoral areas in the world", required "a multi-pronged approach".
Dr McNeill said she thought having a conversation about a minimum living income was worthwhile.
She would like to see a big commitment by the state to putting some money into foodbanks, community meals and breakfast in schools.
ON THE WEB
HUNGER IN HAMILTON
* 25,557 free meals
* 12,438 WINZ food grants
* 4,232 food parcelsBy Simon Collins Email Simon