Congress this week threw the thorny food stamp issue back to the President, voting to raise spending for the rest of the year to prevent a 17 percent cut in food coupons for the 23 million recipients. So if cuts are made, the White House will have to accept full responsibility.
But, according to food experts meeting in Chicago, the Reagan administration as well as the American public may be in a mood to cut food stamps and other antipoverty programs due to misunderstanding about these programs.
The main concern at a seminar sponsored by the nonprofit Milk Foundation here centered on a warning that sharp budget cuts risk throwing away major victories won against malnutrition and hunger.
Tufts University president Jean Mayer, in his rich French accent, said Americans should be proud of having made great social and economic advances. This former head of many US and international panels on food issues said the US faced up to the wrong of having "people literally starving" during the 1930s and on even into the 1960s.
Dr. MAyer credited President Nixon with succesfully carrying out a Republican pledge "to eliminate hunger and malnutrition" in the United States.
Yet Mayer said few Americans are aware of the "great success" of the nation's antipoverty programs. As a result, he feels, the country risks abandoning vital programs because so few appreciate their social and economic value.
Answering the standard complaint that antipoverty programs are examples of "throwing money at problems," Dr. Mayer told the Monitor that in fact such programs are investments that pay for themselves. Citing the special nutrition program for young children and expectant and nursing mothers, he said proven decreases in premature births due to this food program have saved more than the entire program's cost.
Mayer described food stamps as "the single most important program." But he warns that serious cutbacks may be made in food stamps because Democrats "afraid of being seen as big spenders . . . have provided no leadership in fighting for the food stamp program."
Mayer also had a crisp answer for the popular charge that nutritional programs are riddled with fraud. He said fraud associated with these programs is no worse than with other federal programs and "certainly is much lower than with income tax returns."
America is also falling behind internationally, Mayer warned. He said that by devoting only 0.19 percent of its gross national product to foreign assistance programs, the US is far behind the United Nations target of 0.7 percent, far behind other countries, and "is not playing its part." Mayer sees this record as particularly poor because of America's role as the world's leading food exporter. In many cases, he pointed out, US food exports, in fact, undermine needed agricultural development in poorer countries.
Mayer said the US also is uniquely positioned to help other countries develop their agriculture because of this country's successful network of land grant universities, extension services, and other agricultural development aids. He called on the US to devote more resources to developing new techniques such as biogenetic engineering. Such research could lead, for instance, to finding new crops more suitable to tropical conditions, to increasing a crop's ability to fertilize rather than drain the soil, and to making photosynthesis more efficient in all plants.
Such developments, he said, are needed to give poorer nations new ways to develop their agriculture without depending on the expensive fuel and chemicals which are part of current methods for improving agricultural productivity.
More reassuring words came from Peter Barton Hutt, former chief counsel for the US Food and Drug Administration.
Now a private attorney, Mr. Hutt said that throughout recorded history every form of government has regulated food to protect quality and assure supply. So he expects that, despite a changing regulatory climate, the Reagan administration will not follow up on airline and trucking deregulation with food deregulation.
Hutt, Mayer, and other experts here agreed that the federal government will bring in new regulations on food labeling. They expect action under Reagan to cut down on the addition of "micro-nutrients" (vitamins and minerals) to foods. As well, they anticipate new government controls on "macro-nutrients" in food and on the addition of salt in particular.