It has always seemed inexplicable that in a land so richly endowed with a flourishing agricultural economy as the United States, dire poverty and hunger should still be found in substantial parts of American society. Yet, hunger is now the ''most prevalent and the most insidious'' challenge facing US cities, according to the United States Conference of Mayors. And a recent report by the General Accounting Office determined that hunger has increased throughout the US during the past several years as a result of recession and high unemployment.
What that rising level of hunger has translated into, as many mayors repeatedly point out to Washington these days, is the development of scores, even hundreds, of food distribution and private relief centers.
The numbers by themselves indicate what is happening: a 75 percent increase in food centers in Rochester, N.Y., last year; requests for food assistance jumping by 112 percent in Cleveland from 1981 to 1982; a five-fold hike in the number of households served by food programs in the Detroit area from 1980 to 1982.
Given such an increase in assistance and food distribution programs, it hardly seems appropriate for the US government to be cutting back on its programs to feed the needy. Yet the government is doing just that despite huge - and growing - surpluses of such commodities as cheese, milk, and butter.
Take cheese, for example.
Since December, 1981, Washington has distributed 450 million pounds of cheese. This past March alone some 60 million pounds of cheese were turned over to the public. Cheese stockpiles have grown about 50 percent since late 1981.
But now, the Department of Agriculture has cut back cheese distribution programs to a limit of 25 million to 35 million pounds a month.
Why? An official explains that free distribution programs are believed to be partly responsible for a decline in the commercial sale of cheese at the supermarket counter.
Such an argument strains credulity.
The government should be alert to graft and misuse in the food distribution programs - i.e., cases where food stocks are delivered to persons not actually needing the commodities. The US Department of Agriculture will be remiss if it does not tighten up its administrative procedures involving distribution programs.
But beyond ensuring tighter administration, there is still the larger issue of hunger - and what to do with the available food stocks now on hand.
The robust recovery under way, as well as increasing employment, will no doubt alleviate some of the cases of hunger.
But administration economists concede that unemployment will remain historically high throughout 1983 and 1984. That being the case, it seems only reasonable that Washington draw on existing food stocks to help Americans truly in need.
Legislation introduced by Congressman Leon Panetta and Senator Robert Dole would actually increase federal food distribution programs. The legislation, which has cleared the full House and the Senate Agriculture Committee, should be approved by Congress and sent to President Reagan for signature.
In a land as blessed as the United States, no American should have to go to bed hungry.