Food stamps are the major US government programme used to combat hunger and help the poor buy food.

The average benefit was $112.82 per person in January.

"A weakened economy means that many more individuals are turning to SNAP/Food Stamps," said the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group, using the acronym for the renamed food stamp programme, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The US economy is struggling in a recession that many say is the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Positive signs

Food stamp benefits are set to rise by 13 per cent this month temporarily, under the economic stimulus law signed by Barack Obama, the US president.

The increase equals $80 a month for a household of four.

The Commerce Department also said on Thursday that new orders received by US factories rose in February, ending a six-month series of declines.

Economists said the jobless data indicated the serious challenges that remain if the ailing US economy is to be revived.

"It would be an exaggeration to call this a firm rebuttal of the better (economic) data of recent weeks, but it is nonetheless quite striking," said Ian Shepherdson, the chief US economist at High Frequency Economics.

"Claims are typically one of the very first indicators to signal economic recovery and there is no sign of that in the data yet."