Houston — The cost-conscious federal government has succeeded in cutting its bill for the largest US nutrition program serving low-income families. According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), ''Preliminary data show that an average of 20.4 million persons participated in the food stamp program in the third quarter of 1982, down 1.8 million persons from the third quarter of 1981. Similarly, the value of food coupons was $2.4 billion vs. $2.7 billion in the third quarter of 1981.''
Now the food stamp program is targeted for further cuts, dropping from fiscal 1983's $12 billion to $10.9 billion for 1984. Critics of the cutbacks argue that they are coming at a time of great financial need for many families, since unemployment in the United States remains around 10 percent.
A bipartisan group of congressmen led by Reps. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California and James M. Jeffords (R) of Vermont is opposing further reductions in food stamps or other nutrition programs.
Administration officials expect the opposition to heighten following upcoming House nutrition subcommittee hearings. This subcommittee, chaired by Mr. Panetta , is responsible for any food program changes. It holds Capitol Hill hearings April 20 and then meets in Los Angeles April 30 for the last of a series of regional hearings on hunger.
Drawing on a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report and his subcommittee's recent hearings, Panetta charges that ''the administration's proposals will have a severe, damaging effect on millions of the most needy families in this country and will aggrevate the growing problem of hunger in America.''
Panetta says that cutting food stamp spending by $1.1 billion, as the administration proposes, would reduce benefits significantly for low-income families and put extra burdens on state and local governments.
Nancy Amidei, a former Senate committee aide who heads the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C., agrees. Calling for a $2 billion boost for federal food programs, she says, ''The simple fact is that with so much more poverty right now because of high unemployment, we've got soup kitchens, food lines, and emergency pantries in every part of this country.''
Ms. Amidei says that in visiting private groups feeding the nation's poor, ''I am seeing and hearing things that I haven't seen or heard in 15 years. . . . I've met men and women in their 50s who have worked all their lives (who now) qualify for nothing in this world but food stamps, and food stamps are so meager that they can't possibly last until the end of the month.''
The administration paints a very different picture. John W. Bode, deputy assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the USDA, recently assured Panetta's subcommittee that 80 percent of the proposed $1.1 billion cut in food stamp spending ''will come about by reducing misexpenditures rather than recipients' benefits.''
This calculation clashes sharply with the CBO estimate of only a 3 percent saving from better program management. Forty-eight percent would come from reducing benefits to needy individuals, said that agency.
Edwin L. Dale, assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, insists that the proposed changes would not substantially reduce benefits to ''legitimate recipients.'' Saying that the CBO ''has greatly exaggerated the benefit reductions,'' Mr. Dale explains that ''we are assuming some savings from economic recovery and higher employment levels.''
In the Senate, Agriculture Committee chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina seeks to cut food stamp spending even more than the White House proposes. A Helms assistant, Thomas Boney, argues that economic recovery is indeed lessening the need for food programs.
In reply to critics who attack past budget cuts, Mr. Boney says, ''There is no clinical evidence of increasing malnutrition in this country. . . . There is absolutely no hard evidence that there have been increases in malnutrition or in infant mortality rates as a result of the Reagan administration changes in federal nutrition programs.''
Boney also defends limiting eligibility for food stamps to applicants with a maximum of $1,500 in liquid assets, including savings.
According to an aide to a Republican congressman in favor of increasing food stamp spending, the $1,500 asset limit set in 1971 creates real hardship, because ''we're seeing folks laid off from their jobs and they just basically have to sell everything they have at a loss if they want to qualify for food stamps.''
Boney's answer to such criticism is that ''the food stamp program is supposed to be targeted on people who have exhausted all their resources, not on those who have simply decided to save their money for other purposes while they let the government feed them. So if there are some people who would rather have money in the bank and stand in soup kitchen lines, that is their choice.''