Fifteen years ago Americans thought the incongruity shortly would be ended - the presence of hunger in the land of agricultural plenty. Indeed it largely was , in part through federal food assistance programs and an economy that provided more jobs.
Yet in recent months hunger again has reared its head across the land: not-so-pretty pictures have been painted of needy Americans standing in meal lines in many cities, grateful for the food being provided by volunteers. Heartening reports tell of the generosity of Americans, giving increasingly of their time and money to try to meet a growing need. At the same time have come challenging warnings that the need was outstripping the ability of volunteers to meet it.
Now the federal government has taken a good first step: President Reagan has announced his intent to appoint a task force to investigate the dimensions of the hunger problem, and to find out why it exists. Evidence already abounds including recent reports of the US Conference of Mayors, the General Accounting Office, and the National Association of Counties, all of which held that major problems do exist.
Looming as a backdrop is a new report of the Census Bureau that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty, the highest rate in 17 years. The growing ranks of the poor are one indicator of the likely dimension of the national need for hunger aid.
Needed now is for the White House to appoint the panel of experts in the next few days - and for them to investigate the problem and recommend solutions in no more than the scheduled 90 days.
At this point answers are not clear. In announcing establishment of the task force, President Reagan said he was ''perplexed'' by accounts of hungry Americans because by federal law the poor are ''eligible to receive free food stamps.''
Certainly improvements can be made in the food stamp program. Some senators have cited cases of fraud by recipients: That can and must be eliminated. The President asks whether the various federal food assistance programs are being mismanaged, or need more money: these questions, too, need answers.
In all, the opportunity now exists to obtain an incisive, comprehensive picture of the hunger problem - and to move decisively and promptly to meet unmet needs. The US - the world's leading food exporter - must do no less.