Feeding the Hungry

HERE and there, in businesses, churches, stores, and other public places this month, oversized bins await donations of canned goods and nonperishable foods. The silent message they bear - ``Help the hungry'' - represents the most visible part of campaigns by charitable groups to collect food for needy families.

These private collections will be more important than ever this year because of cuts in a federal food program. Last year the United States Department of Agriculture, under The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), spent $80 million to supply food banks and other programs for the poor with canned vegetables, fruits, meats, flour, and corn meal. This year the department will spend only $25 million on purchased commodities.

Alarmed by the reductions, some food pantries and soup kitchens are warning that they will have to curtail their services, possibly even closing their doors part of the week.

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Yet just when the need for individual contributions is up, charitable giving appears to be down slightly. A new study by Independent Sector, a group that does research on volunteerism, reports that Americans are giving less per household to charitable causes than they did in previous years. Last year they donated $880 per household, down from $899 in 1991.

Hunger, long regarded by many Americans as primarily an urban or rural problem, is marching into suburbia as well.

Researchers at the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, using Census Bureau data, found that the share of suburban children in poverty increased by 76 percent between 1973 and 1992. In 1973, 8 percent of suburban children lived in families below the poverty line. By 1992, nearly 14 percent did. Seventy percent of poor suburban children are white.

In defending the cutbacks in TEFAP, government officials maintain that low-income people are better served by food stamps and the USDA's 12 other anti-hunger programs, which cost $40 billion annually. That may be correct. But in a year when tough talk on welfare appears to be a ticket to reelection for some politicians, there is danger of a general hardening of hearts against the impoverished.

The kindness of strangers has always served as an important helping hand for those whose cupboards are bare. But on the present scale of hunger in America, private volunteerism cannot hope to suffice. As individual Americans dig deeper into their pockets to feed empty stomachs, it behooves those in Washington to come up with matching gifts.

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