Hunger costs tallied as commission readies its report

In 1967, the United States looked up from its dinner table and saw the face of hunger on TV. A classic CBS documentary, ''Hunger in America,'' broadcast footage of the rural poor which shocked many US citizens. Large areas of the country had no local food-distribution plans, said the show; as a result, perhaps 10 million Americans were seriously underfed.

Stung by this and a series of expert reports, Congress heeded the admonition ''Feed the hungry.'' Millions of dollars were pumped into food stamps and emergency aid programs. By 1977, say public-interest activists, there was food on the tables of Appalachia and Mississippi, and hunger in America was virtually eliminated.

Today, the US government continues to do much to feed hungry Americans, though its efforts are no longer growing as fast as they did in the '70s. Spending for food aid was $19.3 billion last year, an all-time high. Food stamps , considered by many experts one of America's all-star social programs, last March helped 24 million people, another record.

But these efforts must be seen against a background of rising food costs, Reagan administration cuts that have slashed benefits for many, and the possibility that the need is increasing.

Next week, a hunger commission appointed by President Reagan is scheduled to complete its report. Expected to conclude that hunger is not a pressing problem in the US, the panel is likely to draw heavy fire from Democrats and food program proponents.

Currently, Uncle Sam's aid to hungry Americans takes many forms, from stamps that bolster the poor's food purchasing power, to baskets of eggs, cheese, and other high-protein foods for pregnant mothers, to hot school lunchs for children that may not get a hot dinner.

Thoughout the 1970s, these programs were one of the fastest growing parts of the federal budget. Federal food spending, adjusted for inflation, grew an average of 16 percent a year during the decade.

Over the last three years this growth has continued, though it has slowed down considerably and may stop altogether this year.

''The government is doing more (to fight hunger), spending more, meeting needs more than every before,'' says Robb Austin, Department of Agriculture director of information. ''That's the best kept secret in town.''

While this may be true, strictly speaking, it is not necessarily something the Reagan administration can take credit for. President Reagan's budgets have proposed slashing food spending far below current levels, but Congress has simply refused to go along. The White House '83 budget proposed spending $10.5 billion on food stamps, for instance; actual spending was $12.5 billion.

And 1983's food budget hit a record high because of unusual circumstances. Cheese - those five-pound blocks hauled out of government storage for distribution to the poor - accounted for almost half of last year's jump in federal food costs, estimates a Democratic congressional staff member. The recession, which swelled the ranks of food stamp recipients, caused the other half, he says.

And, in any case, ''it would be a mistake to infer that we haven't done any cutting at all of food programs,'' points out Jack Meyer, health research director of the American Enterprise Institute.

At the behest of the Reagan administration, Congress over the last three years has tightened eligibility requirements for food stamps, delayed cost-of-living increases in food programs, and reduced school lunch subsidies, among other things. Reagan changes in the food stamp program, for instance, will keep the program's 1982-85 cost about $7 billion below what it would otherwise have been, estimates the Congressional Budget Office.

Administration officials say their cuts have mostly affected the relatively well-off, who didn't really need government food assistance.

They say that the average food stamp benefit - now about 43 cents a meal - is an income supplement that assures recipients of adequate meals.

''You have to stretch. No one's saying it's easy,'' says Mr. Austin of the Department of Agriculture. ''No one's saying it's necessarily a pleasant experience.''

But public-interest advocates say that food stamps are clearly inadequate - that many recipients run out before the first of the month, and must resort to soup kitchens.

In general, they claim that administration cuts, along with the recession, have exacerbated hunger in the US.

''We would have had an increase in the problem anyway, but it wouldn't have been nearly as sharp (without the administration's changes),'' says Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former USDA official.

The perception that America's breadlines are lengthening (see story, Jan. 5) and that the administration is insensitive to the problem prompted President Reagan, last fall, to name a hunger study commission.

Last year a similar commission rescued the White House from the politically vexing problem of social security. The hunger panel, so far, has not been that successful. Chock full of Republicans, it has been criticized by Democrats and public-interest advocates as a rubberstamp for the administration. Indeed, preliminary staff papers have reportedly concluded that hunger in the US is only a minor problem.

''It's a 90-day wonder,'' Nancy Amadei, director of the Food Research and Action Center, comments dryly.

''I don't think there's any big secret about what you have to do (to solve hunger),'' continues Ms. Amadei. ''Benefits must be more adequate, and available to more people.''

Such a move would be expensive. Increasing food stamp benefits but 10 percent , as recently proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, would cost $1.7 billion a year.

And one commission member claims such a move still wouldn't solve the United States' most pressing hunger problem - homeless street people, many of whom are former mental hospital patients.

''Many of these people would starve if not cared for by charities,'' says Dr. George Graham, a Johns Hopkins University nutritionist and commission member. ''Federal food programs do very little for them.''

Dr. Graham, perhaps the most outspoken and controversial of the hunger commission members, says that social change, such as readmitting some street people to institutions, is what is needed to solve today's main US hunger problem.

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