Marielle de Vries, a single mother of six, doesn't have much choice about what to feed her family for dinner.

These days, it's likely to be cold sandwiches -- the two bags of groceries she picked up last week from a program for the poor contained a loaf of white bread, cold cuts, nuts, tomatoes and a pineapple.

"It's bad in Africa, but people are going hungry here too. It's just that no one sees it," the 36-year-old said after lugging her provisions out of the God's Pasture church building.

Soup kitchens and bread lines seem out of place in this affluent country long known for its generous welfare system, administered until recently by generations of socialist-leaning governments.

But the growing dependency on private charity by thousands of people reflects how the Netherlands -- long admired for its fast-paced growth, high employment and prosperity -- is increasingly falling on hard times.

After years of strong growth, the economy has ground to a near standstill and since April 2004, the number of people receiving free food packages at the Dutch Food Bank has jumped from 600 per week to nearly 5,000. Thousands more go without.

Most are unemployed, like De Vries. But many were declared physically unfit to work because of disabilities or earn minimum wages that run out before the end of the month.

The conservative government has been trying to bring under control vast costs for welfare, by limiting the number of recipients, and healthcare, expected to balloon in coming years due to aging population.

"It's a serious problem," said Henk Faling, acting head of the Food Bank. "A lot of people might not think so, but help is needed in the Netherlands. Poverty is just around the corner."

The most recent preliminary figures from the government's Social and Cultural Planning Office indicate that at least 11 percent of the Dutch population, or between 700,000 and 800,000 households, lived in poverty in 2004, after the figure had declined steadily in the late 1990s to a low of 10.1 percent in 2000.

The poverty threshold in the Netherlands is annual income of less than $12,770 for a single adult, or $23,930 for a family with two children.

"I wouldn't call it alarming -- we are about in the middle of the range when compared to the rest of the European Union -- but things are headed in the wrong direction," said Cok Vrooman, a leading researcher on poverty at the Bureau, known by its Dutch acronym SCP.

The Netherlands' economy showed the worst performance in the 25-country European Union in the first quarter of 2005, contracting 0.5 percent. While still under the double digit jobless rates of France and Germany, Dutch unemployment has risen to nearly 7 percent from just under 2 percent in the late 1990s.

It's all a sign of economic troubles in a country that is shifting from a traditionally strong social welfare system toward a more free-market approach, with rising health insurance premiums and housing costs. Premiums for health insurance have risen by more than 50 percent on average in the past three years, and are expected to rise by around 10 percent in 2006.

Those trends, combined with government cuts in social spending, have led experts to predict that poverty will worsen in coming years.

"The country is at a crossroads," Vrooman said. The right-wing cabinet is leading the country in the direction of an American-style system, he said.

Those most at risk are pensioners, the elderly, single parents and nonnative households, particularly Moroccan immigrants, Vrooman said.

Immigrant families -- largely isolated from the employment market because they don't speak Dutch and sometimes face discrimination -- account for 33 percent of the country's poor although they make up less than a fifth of the population, according to SCP figures.

Demand for assistance from the Dutch Food Bank is growing so quickly that the not-for-profit organization can't keep up, Faling said, and many distribution points have been forced to introduce waiting lists.

The Food Bank distributes about $5 million in donated food annually. It gives a weekly package worth about $24 in bread, vegetables and other groceries to families with less than $490 in disposable income a month, based on a two-child household. Those eligible can receive assistance for a maximum of three years.

In the country's second-largest city, Rotterdam, 1,300 packages are distributed each week at 30 locations out of hundreds nationwide. Other hard-hit areas are major cities such as The Hague and Amsterdam, and farming areas in the northern province Groningen and the Brabant province in the south.

De Vries has depended on the Food Bank for survival for more than two years. After she and her former husband spent years fruitlessly job hunting, their marriage broke apart over financial worries.

She lost her job as a supermarket cashier and government funded job placement programs have been unable to help her find a new one.

"I know what hunger feels like, but the worst part is the guilt," she said. "I can't even afford to buy my children an ice cream."

Kitty, 41, receives free food at the Food Bank in Rotterdam, a private organization to help those who can no longer depend on state assistance. People line up for handouts at the Food Bank. Since April 2004, the number of people receiving food here has jumped from 600 per week to nearly 5,000.