Hunger costs tallied as commission readies its report
In 1967, the United States looked up from its dinner table and saw the face of hunger on TV. A classic CBS documentary, ''Hunger in America,'' broadcast footage of the rural poor which shocked many US citizens. Large areas of the country had no local food-distribution plans, said the show; as a result, perhaps 10 million Americans were seriously underfed.Skip to next paragraph
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Stung by this and a series of expert reports, Congress heeded the admonition ''Feed the hungry.'' Millions of dollars were pumped into food stamps and emergency aid programs. By 1977, say public-interest activists, there was food on the tables of Appalachia and Mississippi, and hunger in America was virtually eliminated.
Today, the US government continues to do much to feed hungry Americans, though its efforts are no longer growing as fast as they did in the '70s. Spending for food aid was $19.3 billion last year, an all-time high. Food stamps , considered by many experts one of America's all-star social programs, last March helped 24 million people, another record.
But these efforts must be seen against a background of rising food costs, Reagan administration cuts that have slashed benefits for many, and the possibility that the need is increasing.
Next week, a hunger commission appointed by President Reagan is scheduled to complete its report. Expected to conclude that hunger is not a pressing problem in the US, the panel is likely to draw heavy fire from Democrats and food program proponents.
Currently, Uncle Sam's aid to hungry Americans takes many forms, from stamps that bolster the poor's food purchasing power, to baskets of eggs, cheese, and other high-protein foods for pregnant mothers, to hot school lunchs for children that may not get a hot dinner.
Thoughout the 1970s, these programs were one of the fastest growing parts of the federal budget. Federal food spending, adjusted for inflation, grew an average of 16 percent a year during the decade.
Over the last three years this growth has continued, though it has slowed down considerably and may stop altogether this year.
''The government is doing more (to fight hunger), spending more, meeting needs more than every before,'' says Robb Austin, Department of Agriculture director of information. ''That's the best kept secret in town.''
While this may be true, strictly speaking, it is not necessarily something the Reagan administration can take credit for. President Reagan's budgets have proposed slashing food spending far below current levels, but Congress has simply refused to go along. The White House '83 budget proposed spending $10.5 billion on food stamps, for instance; actual spending was $12.5 billion.
And 1983's food budget hit a record high because of unusual circumstances. Cheese - those five-pound blocks hauled out of government storage for distribution to the poor - accounted for almost half of last year's jump in federal food costs, estimates a Democratic congressional staff member. The recession, which swelled the ranks of food stamp recipients, caused the other half, he says.
And, in any case, ''it would be a mistake to infer that we haven't done any cutting at all of food programs,'' points out Jack Meyer, health research director of the American Enterprise Institute.