Less Food on the Table

GOP Contract takes up needed welfare reform; but block grants for food aid are a bad idea.

`THIS is the most affluent nation the world has ever known. This nation - our nation - has a food producing capacity unrivaled in the history of the world. Yet, in the midst of our great affluence, children - American children - are hungry, some to the point where their minds and bodies are damaged beyond repair.

``I have seen, in the Mississippi Delta and on Indian reservations, children who eat only one meal a day - one meal of bread and gravy, or grits, or rice or beans.''

Robert Kennedy spoke these words 27 years ago, just as his year-long battle to provide emergency food assistance to impoverished and malnourished Mississippians was coming to a successful conclusion.

Kennedy's struggle to meet the desperate nutritional needs of the poor in rural Mississippi should serve as an important historical benchmark for Republicans in Congress who are seeking to slash and block grant federal nutrition programs.

Under the Contract With America, the Republican welfare reform program would be financed in part by sending nutrition programs back to the states in the form of block grants. But first funding for nutrition would be cut by 12 percent the first year.

Total cuts would be between $27 billion and $30 billion over five years. The affected programs include Food Stamps; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs; the Summer Food Service Program for Children; the Congregate Meals Program (for the elderly); the Home Delivered Meals Program (``Meals on Wheels''); and others.

No one questions that these federal programs work effectively. In fact, they have always enjoyed bipartisan support.

Now, in a rush to associate phrases like ``flexibility for the states,'' ``waste, fraud, and abuse,'' and ``downsizing government'' to the issue of welfare reform, Gingrich Republicans in the House are about to dismantle important components of our nation's largely successful front-line defense against hunger and malnutrition among poor women, children, and seniors.

One fifth of families who receive food stamps are working families with incomes below the poverty line. In his landmark 1970 book ``The Case Against Hunger,'' Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina draws a direct correlation between proper nutrition and worker productivity. In researching his book, Hollings petitioned the Federal Budget Bureau to estimate the improvement in worker productivity if the nutritional levels of impoverished adults were improved.

The Budget Bureau estimated, not surprisingly, that if poor or hungry people ate better, their productivity would increase.

Millions of seniors nationwide are fed by federal senior meals programs. These are cost-effective, locally managed programs that rely heavily on volunteer support to meet the nutritional and health needs of our senior population at the local level.

How can we advocate family values and the importance of community while proposing to slash programs that take a community-oriented approach to feeding so many of our parents and grandparents who need a helping hand?

We all want to streamline government and continue the progress we made during the past two years in cutting the budget deficit.

However, in the process, we need to remain cautious of easy-sounding fiscal placebos that may exacerbate our budgetary problems. Nutrition programs are an example.

Reforming welfare is a national necessity. Reforming it responsibly is a moral imperative. It is important we heed the lessons of history as we engage in this debate.

When the Republican leadership offers state block grants as a panacea for our societal ills, we should remember when state and local governments were unable or unwilling to assist hungry Americans.

We should reflect on the values that compelled our leaders decades ago to champion important national investments like childhood nutrition. As Mr. Gingrich's followers in the House rush the Contract along, we need to insist they don't score a political victory at the expense of our nation's children and senior citizens. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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