P.J. Huffstutter / Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Last Christmas, Karen Hoxmeier bought her brother a cashmere scarf and several pricey gadgets for his digital camera.

This year, she bought the out-of-work Hollywood cameraman something more essential: groceries.

With the nation's unemployment rate still high and the economy sluggish, a growing number of people are giving food this holiday season. But it's not fruitcake, eggnog or Christmas cookies. Instead, the quiet voice of frugality is prompting consumers to wrap up baskets of kitchen staples, boxes of meat and grocery store gift cards to help loved ones stock dwindling pantries.

Hoxmeier got the idea after sneaking a peek inside her younger brother Bill's kitchen cabinets. She found them pretty bare, she said, “even for a guy.”

For months, her 35-year-old sibling had cut back to make ends meet. His cable TV? Canceled. The phone? Long gone. Shopping trips for vegetarian specialties at his favorite market, Trader Joe's? Out.

So Hoxmeier headed to the eclectic grocery chain this month to purchase a gift card.

“He's getting thin,” said Hoxmeier, 37, a mother of three who lives in Murrieta, Calif. “He can use food.”

Retailers and industry analysts alike say Christmas shopping at the grocery store is growing in popularity. Among consumers purchasing gift cards, grocery stores are expected to rank fourth behind discount, department and drug stores this holiday season, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

“Grocery stores have long been the ones open late, or at certain hours, during the holiday season for last-minute shoppers,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the trade group. “Now, as they're offering gift cards and books and DVDs, people are expanding on the idea of the grocery store providing more than just food for the holiday meal.”

For shopper Matt Halton, a stop at the Pavilions in Seal Beach, Calif., this week meant wrapping up his holiday shopping: two $25 Starbucks gift cards for his brother, who works in real estate; and a $100 prepaid Visa card and a trio of cooking magazines for his daughter, who has been learning to cook after being laid off from her sales job this summer.

“It can get expensive going to the grocery store,” Halton said. “It's nice to know they'll use these.”

Christmas shopping at the supermarket is an attitudinal shift food retailers are eager to encourage. Consumers at Whole Foods Market and Bristol Farms stores are snapping up gift cards, and stepping up purchases of sweets, bottles of wine and baskets stuffed with seasonal snacks, according to company officials. At supermarket chain Ralphs, gift cards have seen single-digit increases over last year, company officials said.

“I'm seeing requests for grocery store cards everywhere,” including on “angel” trees at community centers, said Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs. “I knew they were popular, but this year, it seems they're more so.”

At Sunflower Farmers Market, a 32-store grocery chain in the Southwest that specializes in organic food, same-store sales of grocery gift cards have jumped as much as 30 percent, said company President Chris Sherrell.

“Customers are telling us that food, particularly some of the specialty items, eat up a lot of the family budget,” Sherrell said. “We're hearing a lot of people ask, ‘What do they need? What's practical?' They know food isn't going to go to waste.”

For Polly Blitzer, giving groceries was a way to care for an aging loved one. Beatrice Gage, her childhood nanny and a woman Blitzer considers a second mother, lives on a fixed income in rural Louisiana. A recent dentures bill cost Gage $600, eating up half her monthly income.

During a visit in May, Blitzer found limp vegetables in the woman's refrigerator.

“She told me there were still good parts,” said Blitzer, 35, editor in chief of Beauty Blitz Media in New York. Blitzer immediately called a market in Louisiana to arrange for $250 worth of grocery credit for the elderly woman. Blitzer contacted the store again this month to add more money to Gage's account.

“She walked down the aisle in my wedding. She's outlived my biological family,” Blitzer said. “She's frail, old and proud, and it's my turn to take care of her.”

Gift cards, in general, are once again expected to remain the most requested holiday gift this year, according to the retail federation. Americans will spend an estimated $24.78 billion on all manner of gift cards this holiday season; that's an average of $145.61 per purchaser, up from $139.91 last year, according to the federation.

And shoppers are reaching more frequently for a gift card that results in a tasty treat. Of the people who took part in the federation's survey, 10.8 percent said they would buy a grocery store gift card, up from 10.6 percent in 2009. One in three people said they planned to pick up a gift card for a restaurant, while 13.9 percent said they'd buy cards to coffee shops such as Starbucks, up from 13 percent.

“What's different this year, such as with the grocery cards, is people are recognizing that gift cards can come from the heart,” Grannis said. “If people can't shop for themselves, then gift cards are giving them a way to buy something they normally wouldn't have bought for themselves.”