Mustering strength to fight hunger - when it is not our own

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We live around the corner from a 24-hour market. If there's no milk in the refrigerator, I can step around before breakfast and get some. If we bake cookies at midnight and run out of chocolate chips, they're just a block away. Now and then we grouse about the prices. But the little shop usually has what we want.

In that respect, we're quintessential Americans - citizens of the world's leading food producer. The benefits are everywhere evident. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), my compatriots and I spend only 12.7 percent of our after-tax income on food - compared with 17.3 percent in the United Kingdom, 18.5 percent in France, 21.5 percent in Japan, 33.7 percent in the USSR , and 55.5 percent in India. We eat more meat (8.91 ounces per person per day, says the USDA) than anyone else - more than twice as much as our Soviet counterparts, who (according to a CIA study released earlier this year) make up nearly half their diet in cereals and potatoes. Our grocery stores, unlike those in many countries, overflow with choices.

And, not surprisingly, we drift into excesses: The recently released 1984 Guinness Book of World Records notes that we hold the record for staging the largest barbecue (46,000 chickens) and building the largest ice cream sundae (27 ,102 pounds).

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All of which is both comforting and amusing - until you consider the context. For while some of us are eating well, others both here and abroad are not. The problem, larger than this year's droughts in Africa and North America (although they contribute to it), has a simple name: hunger. Some 450 million people in 90 third-world countries - twice the entire population of the United States - are chronically undernourished.

The great difficulty is to bring a problem of that magnitude into focus for citizens of Western nations where chronic hunger, although not eliminated, is nearly invisible. Statistics help. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) even has some encouraging ones, reporting that per capita food production in the third world is growing by about 1 percent per year. That, however, isn't good enough. According to a major FAO survey (''Agriculture Toward 2000''), a continuation of present trends into the year 2000 would mean:

* The developing countries would slip from being 92 percent self-sufficient in calory supply in 1980 to 80 percent by 2000.

* The third world's balance of payments for agricultural trade would shift from an annual $6 billion surplus to a $36 billion deficit (in 1975 dollars).

* The ranks of the chronically undernourished would swell from 450 million to 590 million. Even under improved conditions - a 3.8 percent annual increase in third-world agricultural output, which the FAO report admits is a ''demanding'' scenario - there would still be some 260 million undernourished persons by 2000.

But statistics don't begin to convey what novelist Joseph Conrad described as ''the devilry of lingering starvation.'' ''It takes a man all his inborn strength,'' Conrad wrote in ''Heart of Darkness,'' ''to fight hunger properly.'' And strength - enough to raise a hoe or stay awake in a classroom or walk several miles for water - is just what seems to be missing. That's not a problem many people face with the grocery store a block away, nor one that the developed world can easily understand.

What can the well-off and well-meaning nations do? The crux of the matter, specialists agree, is not so much production as distribution - moving food from rich fields to hungry mouths. But distribution is a complex issue, involving politics, finance, and infrastructure. It also involves international diplomacy - the willingness of countries to work together to overcome those differences of climate, topography, and soil that make some lands more suited than others to food crops.

Such diplomacy cannot take root if a climate of isolationism and a ''fortress America'' mentality clouds our thinking. That the dragons of isolationism may be stirring is hinted at in a budget amendment that passed the Senate by a 66-to-23 margin last month. Its goal: cut the US contribution to the United Nations and its agencies by $500 million over the next four years.

Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, who sponsored the amendment, says she hopes it will ''lead to new thoughts about priorities'' for UN spending. Perhaps it will. But unless such restructurings of the international apparatus are carefully conceived, they could severely damage our ability to alleviate world hunger.

To us quintessential Americans, with our markets around the corner and our world records for making the largest pizza and eating the most gherkins, that damage may seem only a side effect. To much of the rest of the world, however, it could look like sheer heartlessness. Conrad may have been right. It may take all our inborn strength to fight hunger - especially when the hunger is not our own.

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