Hunger is an elusive problem, panel finds - but critics say its report skirts the issue

The President's Task Force on Food Assistance has turned out to be a 90-day wonder whose report is neither startling nor likely to have much immediate effect.

The panel, in the end, danced artfully around the key questions President Reagan charged it with investigating: How much hunger is there in the United States? Is hunger growing?

The task force's final report, approved Monday, says that there is no evidence that lack of food is causing major health problems in America. But panel members concluded that there is ''social hunger'' in the US - although they didn't precisely define what social hunger is, and couldn't say how much of it exists.

''We're basically saying there's hunger out there, and it's difficult to get a handle on who, what, where, and how many,'' said task force member Sandra Smoley, chairwoman of the National Association of Counties.

This conclusion represents a retreat, of sorts. Early drafts of the report, prepared by the commission staff, said that claims of widespread hunger in the US are ''exaggerated.''

But the task force's final answer is, in essence, the conventional wisdom held by many hunger experts and congressional staffers - that there's some sort of problem out there, but we don't know what it is.

Antihunger activists, however, complain that the panel played down all evidence that hunger is widespread, and didn't explore the effect of Reagan budget cuts in food programs.

''This whole thing is dishonest,'' muttered Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while watching the panel approve its final report at a public meeting.

In any case, the panel's recommendations are unlikely to spark sweeping alterations of federal food assistance programs.

The task force's main suggestion - meld federal food programs into a block grant to the states - would indeed be a major change. States, if they signed up for the optional program, would be able to set their own eligibility requirements for food stamps, school lunches, and other food programs. Their cash grant from Washington would fluctuate with the cost of food and number of people who needed aid.

''We're not talking about curtailing federal programs. We're talking about making them better,'' says task force member Edward J. King, former governor of Massachusetts.

But the block grant proposal, if it is to become law, must win over a host of enemies. The National Governors' Association, the National Association of Counties, and the US Conference of Mayors all oppose the move. These groups feel the grant would eventually translate into federal budget cuts, which they would have to make up out of their own pockets.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole, in a civilly worded threat, added that Congress is ''not likely to favor'' the block grant.

The panel may find that Congress is cool toward most of its proposals. Last year's social security commission, whose report was adopted by Congress almost unchanged, counted as members several key senators and representatives. But the food task force had no congressional participants - so Capitol Hill has no stake in any of its suggestions.

Whatever happens, says panel member John Driggs, former mayor of Phoenix, the hunger task force has ''focused national attention on the issue,'' and ''made some constructive gestures.''

Other recommendations of the food assistance panel include:

Minor benefit increases. The commission urges raising food stamp benefits to cover 100 percent of the cost of the Agriculture Department's Thrifty Food Plan, from the current 99 percent. It also recommends that the limit on what food stamp recipients can own be raised to a $5,500 car and $2,250 in other assets. Mr. Driggs admits these raises are ''not really a big deal.''

Simpler application procedures. All welfare recipients should automatically be eligible for food stamps, says the panel. Controversial suggestions to simplify applications by counting all people at one address as one ''household'' and to standardize certain deductions were rejected by panel members.

Tougher penalties for states whose programs are error-ridden. The panel recommended that states be forced to pay for all overpayment mistakes in excess of 5 percent of food stamp program costs.

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