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

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1985


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.

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``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.

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.