When it comes to food, more than a quarter of the people in Kern County didn't know where their next meal was coming from sometime in the year.

That puts our county in the unenviable position of No. 1 in the country for "food hardship," according to data from the Food Hardship in America 2012 report out today.

The information put out by the Food Research and Action Center reflects a Gallup Healthways telephone survey of adults with results from 2011 and 2012. Respondents were asked this simple question: "Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"

Our food hardship rate came in at 26.7 percent, far ahead of tied for No. 2 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, La., and Greensboro-High Point, N.C. at 23 percent.

Kern's suffering isn't a shock to people here who serve the hungry.

"The reporting we have gathered with our clients shows an increase in individuals who are one paycheck away from not having food on their table and at risk of becoming homeless," said Ian Anderson, program manager for the food bank at Community Action Partnership of Kern.

More and more families are struggling with job loss, and some middle-class people are suddenly needing help for the first time and don't know where to turn for it.

"Families need to know that programs like the food bank can help when they feel lost after they suddenly lose thier jobs or are left with one paycheck to support the family," Anderson said.

The most vulnerable populations are seniors and youth under age 18. A whopping 56 percent of youth under age 18 in Bakersfield are vulnerable to food shortage, he said.

The nationwide survey found that one in six households said they were suffering from food hardship. That was a little better than in 2011.

The survey in 2012 showed that nationally, 18.2 percent of households reported food hardship. The numbers are basically the same as four years ago. In 2008, food hardship came in at 17.8 percent.

The Gallup survey gathered information by interviewing 1,000 households per day, every day, year-round. Results were based on telephone (landline or cellular) interviews.

According to the report, "the nation's food hardship rate -- much too high before the recession -- was made worse by the recession and the nation has yet even to retrace that path, much less start tackling the long-term problem. Families simply do not have adequate resources -- from wages, income supports and SNAP -- to purchase enough food."

Brandon Smith, founder of Love for Thanksgiving, thought the local situation was serious, but not quite as bad as the numbers show.

Smith has been helping to serve turkey dinners to people in Bakersfield living on the streets for the past five years. He said he doesn't understand why Bakersfield struggles to put food on the table.

"The numbers are shocking because we come from such an agriculture valley that produces an abundance of food that feeds a large portion of America," Smith said. "This shouldn't be happening and we need to find a way to stop these numbers from growing."

The Community Action Partnership of Kern food bank works hard to get nutritious food into the hands of the needy and collaborates with food banks across the valley.

"We have partnerships with food banks in Ventura and Fresno and we have the capacity of trading items up and down the valley, from fresh produce to cans," Anderson said.