HUNGER IN AMERICA. The new pattern of US hunger: cupboards empty before the month ends, malnutrition, and increasing requests for emergency food

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A Harvard University task force on hunger recently visited communities in eight states. Its findings: hunger in the United States is not diminishing, but may be increasing -- despite federal programs to fight it. DESPITE continuing signs of economic recovery, recent studies show the problem of hunger in America is not diminishing, and may even be growing.

``The gap between the rich and poor can widen even when there is economic growth,'' says Robert Greenstein, director of the private, Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. ``This economic recovery is unusually uneven.''

``There's no question hunger was on the rise in 1981, 1982, and 1983. It hasn't diminished since then,'' Mr. Greenstein says. ``It's difficult to say if it is continuing to rise,'' he adds.

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Although the number of hungry people is difficult to pin down, a significant new study on US hunger by Harvard University's School of Public Health -- the Harvard Physicians' Task Force on Hunger -- has recently documented dozens of cases of hunger in eight states.

The soon-to-be released report (sponsored by the Field Foundation) is expected to call for major increases in federal food assistance programs, including a 25-to-30 percent increase in food-stamp allotments. `New pattern' of hunger in the '80s

The pattern of hunger, according to the Harvard report, has changed since the mid-'60s. Then, another private task force found widespread hunger in America and a need for food assistance programs, says Larry Brown, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health and chairman of the recent hunger task force.

In most cases, hunger is no longer a ``day in, day out'' phenomenon, Mr. Brown says. It is usually a problem ``two to 10 days'' out of the month, as families depending on food stamps run low or run out of them toward the end of the month, Brown says.

In Tennessee, a mother of three told the physicians her food stamps run out after 21/2 to 3 weeks. ``By the end of the month she lives on plain spaghetti for two or three days at a time'' and sometimes relies on a neighborhood center for additional food, according to the task force report.

In a Monitor interview, Brown said that no one knows how many people are hungry at least part of each month. But it is ``clearly in the millions,'' he said. Who is going hungry?

Among those the Harvard task force found to be still hungry despite improvements in the nation's economy:

The ``new poor.'' A family recently drove up to a food pantry in Galena Park, Texas, in a late-model Ford Bronco. ``They're out of work, behind in rent and utilities,'' says the Rev. Steve Kurtright, whose church runs the pantry. These people have little money left over for food, he says, adding that they try to hang on to their cars to go to job interviews.

The elderly. A 79-year-old woman on social security stood for hours this fall in a commodity food-distribution line in Caruthersville, Mo. ``Do you think we'd stand in line all day if we weren't really hungry?'' asked a man in the same line.

The children. In Sidon, Miss., Eloise Sample, a teacher in the federal preschool program Headstart, says 20 percent of her children eat two or three federally funded breakfasts every Monday because they have had little to eat over the weekend.

``Between 1980 and 1984, the bottom 40 percent of the population [in terms of income] showed losses in after-tax income adjusted for inflation,'' says Urban Institute economist Marilyn Moon. They have ``lost ground,'' she says.

``The loss for the bottom 20 percent is the greatest.'' They lost 7.6 percent of their income. The next higher 20 percent lost only 1.7 percent, Ms. Moon says.

The greatest losses for both groups came during the period 1980 to '82. But the bottom 20 percent continued to lose ground slightly, from 1982 to '84. ``They certainly didn't recover,'' she adds.

Mr. Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says many of the nation's jobless have long since exhausted their unemployment benefits. Only about 30 percent of the nation's unemployed are now getting such benefits, the lowest percentage in 15 years, he says. Searching out need

Although unemployment and poverty statistics do not necessarily indicate a certain proportion are hungry, both critics and defenders of current federal policies agree on one thing: No American should be going hungry.

But the indications are that, for whatever reasons, many still do.

Operators of many private food pantries and soup and sandwich kitchens told the Harvard team that demands for emergency food have not lessened. In most cases, demand was increasing in 1984, the team was told. From May to October last year, the team visited communities in New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A February 1983 Harvard University study entitled ``American Hunger Crisis -- Poverty and Health in New England'' found that 20,000 people were being served by 207 emergency food programs in the Boston area in January 1983. Prior estimates had placed the hungry at 3,000 to 4,000. The study also determined that hunger was no longer confined to the poor and minorities.

Officials in more than half of the 83 cities of various sizes surveyed last summer by the US Conference of Mayors reported increased demands for food, shelter, and other emergency services last year and expected further increases in demands this year. Whose meals got cut by budget cuts?

Despite apparently increasing need, the food stamp program was cut by about 15 percent, and child nutrition programs by about 30 percent during the first term of the Reagan administration. The programs have continued to operate at reduced levels, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

About a million people formerly eligible for food stamps were removed from the program, says John Bickerman at the private, nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Further cuts are being planned for fiscal 1986, he says.

About 3 million schoolchildren are no longer eligible to participate in the federal school-lunch program; about 500,000 children no longer get school breakfasts; and about 500,000 children are no longer eligible for summer food programs, he says.

Cuts in eligibility for both food stamps and child nutrition programs affected those whose incomes were highest among people eligible, and not those who were poorest, according to the CBO. But most cuts came in reduced benefits to those left on the programs, Bickerman says.

The other federal food program, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), has been increasing and is more than keeping up with inflation, according to the CBO. But many who need the help are not getting it because of the restricted size of the program, says Bickerman.

The President's budget for fiscal 1985-86 shows funding for all federal food programs will remain at approximately current levels. Panel couldn't find `rampant hunger'

In January 1984, President Reagan's Task Force on Food Assistance was assigned to look into allegations that increasing numbers of Americans were going hungry.

The task force found that hunger does exist, but said: ``We have not been able to substantiate allegations of rampant hunger. We regret our inability to document the degree of `nonclinical' hunger because such lack of definitive, quantitative proof contributes to a climate in which policy discussions become unhelpfully heated, and unsubstantiated assertions are then substituted for hard information.''

Thus, despite the President's task force, the search continues for just what level of malnutrition constitutes hunger, how widespread the problem is, and what should be done about it. Researchers, too, continue to seek the ``quantitative proof'' for use in discussion and policymaking. Hunger USA -- its `discovery' in the '60s

Federal involvement in feeding hungry Americans occurred largely because of a public outcry in the 1960s. It was in 1968 that a team of physicians visited the South and Southwest studying national data and finding substantial signs of poverty and hunger in America.

A wave of publicity quickly followed, then a vast expansion of food stamps and other federal nutritional programs. The food stamp program is the bulwark program to fight hunger. In 1964, the fledgling program cost $28 million and served 360,000 people. Twenty years later, the 1984 budget was $11.45 billion, serving nearly 21 million people.

Federal programs have reduced hunger. In 1977, a second Field Foundation-sponsored investigation found ``poverty was still there, but there was enormous improvement in hunger,'' says Richard Boone, executive director of the foundation. Food stamps were the main help, he says.

Now, Mr. Boone says in summarizing the Harvard report, ``the problem of hunger is reappearing in places, and to a degree that is disheartening.'' The politics of food stamps

Already, officials of the US Conference of Mayors and others are gearing up for what they admit may be a futile battle in Congress to restore some of the cuts in food programs made during President Reagan's first term.

In the new Congress, budget deficit reduction, not program expansion, has become a top priority. Congressional sources contacted hold out little prospect for any major changes in food assistance programs this year.

Defenders of the Reagan administration contend the cuts are not responsible for the hunger that exists. Some say the safety-net programs are there, but that many poor are just too proud to take part. Others suggest that continued long-term unemployment, cuts in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and rising housing costs are closely related to problems of hunger.

US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina says the food stamp program is adequate. Senator Helms heads the Agriculture Committee, which is responsible for the program.

Food stamp eligibility is based on income. The poorest are eligible for the most. A family of four with no other net income is eligible for $264 a month in food stamps, or 70 cents a meal per person. The average recipient, who has some other income, gets fewer food stamps, averaging 48 cents per person per meal.

But food stamps were never meant to provide the entire food budget for most recipients, says Tom Boney, a member of Senator Helms's Agriculture Committee staff.

Mr. Boney's contention is bolstered by Kevin R. Hopkins, who until last April was a special assistant to President Reagan and is currently a White House consultant. Mr. Hopkins says the conclusion of the presidential task force was that ``by and large, people who need food assistance can get food assistance.''

Many not getting such assistance choose not to get it, he says. They do not want to face the ``hassle or stigma'' of applying for such aid as food stamps. Those who run out of food stamps before the end of the month may be spending their money unwisely, on such things as alcohol or gambling, he suggests.

Still, the Harvard task force was frequently told by nutritionists and others they interviewed that even food stamps as a supplement to a small income did not result in an adequate diet for many. And task force members kept meeting people who, for one reason or another, appeared to have inadequate diets.

Federal cuts are not the only culprits, but they are the largest, Larry Brown contends. ``Just as the need was peaking, we instituted the sharpest cutbacks in social programs in our history,'' he says of the last several years. Also, ``bureaucratic terrorism,'' as he calls it -- what he sees as excessive verification requirements and difficult procedures to get food stamps -- is posing a hardship, he says.

Many of the paper-work requirements were instituted to reduce fraud, but critics say things have gone too far the other way.

Mr. Brown, who is drawing some criticism from Republicans who accuse him of becoming too political, admits the task force went to places where there were reports of poverty and hunger. The study, he says, is ``not a national random sample.'' But the problems are not unique to those states, he contends, judging by national figures on the high number of people eligible for food stamps and other food programs who are not receiving aid. Empty refrigerators and a need for innovative solutions

In Atlanta, Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, a nonprofit organization that researches issues of poverty and race, agrees with the findings of the Harvard task force. ``There are reports from all over the region that a lot of folks are finding themselves with empty refrigerators at the end of the month,'' he said.

Doctors visiting Patricia Jones and her three-year-old son in Montgomery, Ala., found their refrigerator contained three eggs, one slice of cheese, and some water. The boy had had no milk for three weeks, while the family awaited food stamp certification.

In southeast Chicago, people in food lines include steelworkers, now unemployed, who come to get a meal with their families.

Numerous home visits in city communities by Harvard researchers revealed empty refrigerators and families frequently without food.

Mr. Suitts sees an increased need for nutritional and consumer education, as well as increases in food assistance programs. He also suggests federal help in setting up more farm-to-consumer markets for small farmers to sell directly to the poor.

Although often disagreeing over what constitutes evidence of hunger, conservative and liberal legislators still agree on one point.

``A nation as wealthy as we are ought not to have a problem of hunger,'' says Brown.

Boney, of Senator Helms's staff, makes a similar point. There is, he says, ``no reason [people] should be going hungry.''

From that common ground it is hoped that another search for solutions may begin soon.

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