When 250 people stand in line out in the drizzling rain on a chilly October morning just to get a free loaf of old bread, that's a clear indication there's hunger in New England, says Michael Morrill, director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
In Providence, R.I., there are four bread lines serving more than 1,000 families every week, Mr. Morrill says. During the month of June, he says, about 10,000 people - more that 1 percent of the entire population of Rhode Island - needed some sort of emergency food assistance.
These are grim statistics. And there are others that are a lot more disturbing. All point to the conclusion that hunger is a growing problem, not just in Providence or in Boston, but across New England and, indeed, the whole country.
J. Larry Brown, professor in the School of Public Health at Harvard University, says the hunger problem has two intertwined causes: the troubled economy with its resulting unemployment and inflation, and cuts in federal aid programs for the needy.
Dr. Brown says the Reagan administration is not wholly to blame. Indeed, he notes, statistics indicate that the surge in the number of hungry people began six to eight months before President Reagan took office.
But, he says, Reagan presided over the biggest social spending cuts in history, at a time when many people say the need to care for the poor and needy is growing dramatically.
For instance, here in Massachusetts, the number of people receiving food stamps fell from 487,000 in January 1982 to 395,000 in September 1982. By contrast, during the last six months, requests for food at the Boston Salvation Army were up 200 percent.
In Massachusetts, the number of children eligible to receive free school lunches dropped from 400,000 in 1980 to 230,000 in 1982. A similar decline was reported in the school breakfast program. These changes, for the most part, did not come about because the families of these children are better off than they were. They came because the federal government raised the eligibility levels, stating, in effect, that families could get by on what previously had been considered inadequate.
Harold McLean, regional director of the US Food and Nutrition Service in New England, administers the food-stamp program here. He says that the food-stamp contribution to needy families and individuals has been tested to ''narrowly satisfy'' their food requirements. He says that, yes, 1 million people across the nation were cut from the program due to new administration policies, but that for those people, the cut represented less than $10 a month. Harvard's Brown, however, flatly denies that figure.
Some people working to combat hunger are deeply dismayed at cuts in federal programs. For instance, one Massachusetts nutritionist says that in some cases, school meals are the only decent meals children get. She tells of some children devouring school breakfasts on Monday mornings, after apparently being under-nourished on weekends.
A nutritional survey put out by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health last week indicated that there are between 10,000 and 17,500 poor, very young children in the state suffering ''chronic nutritional deficiencies.'' The report states that such problems stunt growth and prevent normal learning and mental development.
The problem of hunger is not limited to children. But neither is it limited to those who are traditionally considered needy - homeless ''street people.''
Reports from organizations operating bread lines and soup kitchens say that, in addition to increased demand for their services, they are seeing a great increase in the range of needy people. This includes the newly unemployed, the elderly, and many more families.
Food banks, soup kitchens, bread lines, churches, and other private institutions are doing a remarkable job of coping with the increased need. There are 65 soup kitchens in Boston alone. Many of them have opened within the past two years.
Pat Abbate, a nutrition coordinator in Warwick, R.I., says the public sector has been commended by the President for all its accomplishments. But, she asks, how far can it go? ''The voluntary sector has been almost sucked dry,'' she says.
Brown is trying to put all the statistics into perspective. He helped organize the Citizens' Commission on Hunger in New England. The commission - a group of educators, physicians, and representatives of the business, religious, and political communities - is holding public hearings throughout New England to gather data on the scope of hunger and resulting health-related problems. The commission plans to present its findings to the public in January.
As a matter of public policy to address hunger, Brown says, we cannot simply rely on a better economy, as the Reagan administration is doing. The economic improvement has not yet trickled its way down to the needy. There are short-term needs that must be addressed quickly, he says. Then we must work to deal with the broader ''structural'' problem of hunger.
President Reagan appointed a commission last August to study hunger. But some people doubt the panel will objectively consider the problem. For instance, panel member George Graham of Johns Hopkins University has publicly stated that the nutritional status of low-income groups is ''good and continually getting better.''
The President's commission will be in Boston on Dec. 2 to hold a public hearing. The conclusions this commission adopts, and the steps the Reagan administration takes to counter hunger, must be honest and provide for substantive solutions.
For the government to reduce public assistance programs because people are less needy is an intelligent step. But to cut back on basic programs like food assistance during a time of high unemployment and inflation is clearly a misguided move.