The Auckland City Mission is warning of a "hunger crisis" after distributing more food parcels than at any time in its century-long history.

Chief executive Chris Farrelly said 15,879 emergency food parcels were given out in the past 12 months, or 43 parcels a day.

That is a 22 per cent increase on the previous year, and the highest number since the city mission was set up in downtown Auckland 98 years ago.

"There is a hunger crisis in our country," Farrelly said.

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The parcels distributed by the city mission, which are worth around $65, fed 51,000 people in the past year. It put the trend down to high rents, fuel and energy costs, and debt to loan sharks.

Other charities including the NZ Council of Christian Social Services are reporting similar demand for food packages. Demand is not limited to the poorest section of society - working families are among those asking for help.

Farrelly said there was a public perception that struggling families became dependent on food parcels.

But most of those seeking help from the mission were doing so for the first time. And around 84 per cent of those who have asked for food parcels only do so once or twice in their lifetime.

The city mission is carrying out research into food security in New Zealand and it had found that food was a discretionary item for low-income households.

"Someone with an income of $500 a week and expenses of $480 will only have $20 left for food, and if an emergency occurs, that money will get squeezed," Farrelly said.

"This means people are unable to afford enough appropriate, quality food, and find they need to ask for emergency food assistance. It is a major source of shame and stress for these families."

Unlike other developed countries, food security is not specifically measured in New Zealand on a regular basis.

Farrelly said this meant the extent of the problem remained hidden and there was limited understanding of the issues which lead to people going hungry.

By the time they were seeking help with food, they were likely to already be experiencing serious poverty and associated problems.

One of the city mission's staff, in conjunction with the University of Auckland, is now surveying 1000 of the people who have been given food parcels to get a better understanding of food security in New Zealand.

A University of Otago study in 2010 found that 15 per cent of New Zealand's population was "food insecure", which meant they could not acquire nutritional and safe food on a regular basis.