Hungry children -- the test of civilization?

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About 26 million American children who eat school lunches and about 850,000 preschoolers who receive meals and snacks in day-care centers will find their trays becoming a little lighter after mid-November. It is then that cuts in federal subsidies will take effect, barring a last-minute reprieve.

The Department of Agriculture concedesthat the reduced portions "in some cases lower the recommended daily allowance for nutrients" but insists that the lunches will still provide at least one-third of a daily nutritional minimum.

A private organization, the Food Research and Action Center, is skeptical, calculating by the new standards that an acceptable lunch could consist of a couple of ounces of hamburger on half a bun, six French fries, nine grapes, and half a glass of milk.

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It always comes as a jolt at budget time when the belt that is tightened turns out to be encircling a child's waist.

It is particularly shocking when the waist belongs to an American child.

In an affluent nation at budget time one expects to trim the luxuries -- one is constantly being told about The Enormous Waste. One does not expect the figurative knife to be cutting away at food, literally, least of all on a child's lunch plate.

If American children are going to go a little hungrier, what about the 4.5 billion human beings that populate the rest of the earth, one-fourth of whom suffer from malnutrition?

Africa, according to the United Nations World Food Council, has 10 percent less food than a decade ago. About 100 million Africans are believed to be receiving less than a daily nutritional minimum. In sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that 70 percent of the people are not getting sufficient to eat.

In India 300 million people fall within the state of "being hungry."

And always there are the hungry children. The World Bank figures that eight out of ten of the world's undernourished people are children and women.

These appalling statistics are not inevitable, if other statistics are true.

Less than 60 percent of the earth's cultivatable land is now said to be under cultivation.

The United States is selling 40 percent of its harvest abroad -- an estimated well-to-do nations that can pay for it, and a good deal of that is finding its way into the stomachs of livestock rather than people, with the intent of producing meat.

In any case, the massive grain shipment -- the reflex response to cries of starvation -- is now judged to be a mixed blessing. "We feel the best contribution you can make is to go into a community or village and teach people to grow their own food," Ernest Grigg, executive vice-president of Save the Children, testified before the House Agriculture Committee hearings on world hunger this summer.

Rather few House members heard Grigg and the other experts who testified. As a member of that committee, Rep. Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas, explained, with due irony, many of his colleagues were attending "budget reconciliation" meetings -- "deciding how much we are going to cut the agricultural support programs."

It is so hard to drive the crises out of the headlines -- the budget crisis, the arms-race crisis. Can hunger be a crisis if it goes on all the time?

On Oct. 16 the United Nations is sponsoring the first annual World Food Day. On Nov. 19, the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Oxfam America is sponsoring its eighth annual Fast for a World Harvest.

Perhaps the staged event will capture our attention as the monotonous nonevent of daily hunger fails to.

Addressing herself to world hunger, the late Barbara Ward wrote that "the moral challenge of our day" is "the ability of our civilization to redeem its wealth, turn its immense resources to the service of life, and use the technology of abundance to recreate, not destroy the face of the earth."

This challenge might even include lunch programs in American schools.

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