THE most visible hunger in America can be found on city streets, where crudely lettered cardboard signs spell out desperate appeals: ``Need food'' or ``Hungry and homeless - please help.''
But hidden away in other places around the country - in urban apartments, suburban homes, small towns, and rural areas - are millions of other hungry people whose needs are less well known. Nearly 26 million adults and children - 1 in 10 Americans - do not have enough to eat, according to Second Harvest, a Chicago-based network of 185 food banks serving 42,000 charitable agencies across the nation. Almost half of those needing assistance are under the age of 17.
For many of these recipients, hunger is a relatively recent and unaccustomed problem, brought on by layoffs and joblessness. More than 45 percent, in fact, had not expected to need help three months before first seeking aid. Unable or unwilling to ask relatives and friends for help, they must depend on soup kitchens, pantries, and other hunger programs for at least part of their basic food supply. Other recipients, according to Second Harvest, are the homeless and those in single-parent families.
Ironically, the current demand is so great that food programs are finding their own pantries empty at times, forcing them to turn away thousands of recipients.
The Second Harvest study comes just as Congress is considering President Clinton's 1995 budget proposal to eliminate federal spending on commodities distributed to food programs under The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. This move would save $80 million a year - savings that could hurt millions of people.
In a proverbial land of plenty, these findings should provoke more shock and outrage than they do. The study, in fact, has received limited media coverage.
At a time when mounting evidence shows a collective hardening of hearts toward the homeless and downtrodden, the most basic necessity of life - food - must not be considered an option or a luxury.
What will help? More compassion for the genuinely needy outstretched hand. And more donations of food or money to hunger programs. Ultimately, of course, the only lasting solution will be to improve families' economic well-being through more jobs and more stable employment. As always, a fishing rod remains a more lasting gift than a fish.