Washington — What you see first is his crudely lettered sign: I'M HUNGRY
He crouches behind the message, his face hidden by it. He is young, disheveled, and apparently unnoticed by the throng of noontime passers-by.
In the late 1960s politicians and physicians toured the American South and noted the widespread existence of hunger among the poor. With broad support from Americans, the federal government quickly established massive programs that largely eradicated hunger. In 1979 a task force of physicians could report after a trip to the South that, although poverty remained, Americans no longer were going hungry.
In the 1980s the situation has slowly regressed.
Despite the twin efforts of the federal government and a veritable army of volunteers to feed millions of people daily, growing evidence exists that for a variety of reasons many Americans -- like the young man with his sign -- now are going hungry. He happens to sit on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., but he could be in any one of several dozen American cities. The hungry, like the man in Washington, often are faceless and feel ignored.
This week, at least, domestic hunger will not be ignored. A large number of Americans are preparing to participate Sunday in the Hands Across America project, with the aim of alleviating domestic hunger. In addition to contributing money for private hunger-relief programs, the participants will join hands to form a symbolic chain spanning the United States. [Those interested in joining the project may phone 800-682-8080.]
Tomorrow the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources will hold hearings on the scope of the hunger problem. The same day, Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will introduce a proposal to deal with the problem, in part by increasing food stamp benefits and raising the amount schools receive for providing meals to poor children.
``The problem of hunger,'' says Mr. Panetta, ``continues to grow in our society. That's substantiated by the hearings [congressional subcommittees] have held around the country almost continually for the past four years, in both rural and urban areas. Regardless of where we've gone, the condition is pretty much the same. Soup kitchens and food pantries are overwhelmed by use -- not just transients, it's families now.''
Normally there would be no realistic prospect for such a bill to become law this close to the end of a congressional session, especially given federal budget problems and the constraints of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law. But proponents of greater food assistance to the hungry hope that, as one says, ``the attention focused on Hands Across America will touch Americans' generosity and provide a brief window of opportunity'' for immediate congressional action.
The best-known recent hunger study, conducted last year by the Harvard School of Public Health, concludes that up to 20 million Americans go hungry at least two days a month.
The US Conference of Mayors says that in 25 American cities it checked, 17 percent of the need for emergency food goes unmet for lack of funds. The mayors' conference adds that in every city except one, more emergency food, doled out generally by volunteers, will likely be needed this year than last -- and that last year the demand rose 28 percent.
Members of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger recently surveyed more than 1,500 people who receive emergency food. It found that in one-fifth of the households surveyed, children had to skip some meals, as did almost half the expectant mothers. Only 4 families in 10 received food stamps, and half the households had a monthly income under $400.
At the same time, the federal effort to combat hunger remains considerable. This fiscal year Uncle Sam is spending an estimated $11.7 billion to provide food stamps -- the nation's top anti-hunger program -- to the needy; that is slightly more than in 1981, not counting inflation. Further, the federal government is spending large amounts in three other areas designed to alleviate hunger: school lunches, school breakfasts, and the program to aid women, infants, and children. Critics point out that because of inflation, such federal help in fact has not kept up with the need.
Why the reports of hunger?
For two main reasons, specialists say. There are an estimated 4 million more poor people now than five years ago, due largely to job layoffs in troubled industries. And the federal government has lessened efforts to locate persons eligible for food stamps who do not apply for them, either because they don't know about it or are too embarrassed to apply.
Robert J. Fersh, executive director of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, says Washington has not adequately responded to the greater number of poor.
``With the tremendous growth in poverty and hunger over the last few years,'' he says, ``we have not really increased our federal assistance in the way that is commensurate with the problem.''
In addition, the housing pinch and (until recently) rising energy prices in recent years have caused many people with jobs to have less money to spend on food.
Only about 60 percent of the poor are expected to be helped by food stamps this year, compared with 68 percent five years ago. Hence the increasing numbers applying to food kitchens for meals and to distribution centers for free foodstuffs.
Prominently represented among the hungry are homeless Americans, believed to be between 350,000 and 3 million people. Physicians have testified before the House Select Committee on Hunger that, despite the best efforts of food kitchens and shelters for the homeless, the nutritional requirements of the homeless are not now being met.