Several giant food manufacturing corporations are to some extent coming to the rescue of the nation's poor and hungry.
Kraft Inc., the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Beatrice Foods, and Safeway Stores have accepted positions of leadership in a national network of 40 food banks, named Second Harvest.
With the cutbacks in food stamps and various welfare programs, the lines at ''soup kitchens'' and other facilities for those with inadequate food have been lengthening. The government estimates that some 25 million Americans are now living at or below the poverty level.
A food industry association last year challenged its members to reinforce President Reagan's call for efforts to reduce the role of government in the nation by pitching in with food that would otherwise be wasted. A newsletter said this was a chance for the industry ''to give dramatic proof'' that it could respond to public problems, too.
The letter referred to the already existing Second Harvest food bank network as a system experienced and ready to transfer salvageable food to the hungry. It also pointed to tax incentives provided by the Tax Reform Act of 1976. These allow a corporate tax deduction for the fair market value of the property. The newsletter also spoke of the opportunity to demonstrate corporate humaneness and good citizenship.
A further selling point noted by the newsletter is the convenience of disposing of unwanted merchandise in a simple manner. It said it's far easier to make one come-and-get-it call than to deal with numbers of groups, legitimate or not, seeking handouts. There is far less worry that the products will find their way back into the marketplace, and far less concern about contamination, it was argued.
Good Samaritan laws absolving food donors of liability have been enacted by 39 states, according to US Rep. Tony P. Hall (D) of Ohio.
There is hardly a branch of the food industry that does not have something to contribute which it would ever miss, program advocates contend. Growers and farmers usually overproduce, and many allow gleaners to collect leftover crops after the harvest (hence the name, ''Second Harvest''). Culls, that is, fruits and vegetables rejected because of their shape or size or color, are natural donations. Spaghetti, for example, is trimmed before packaging, leaving perfectly good loops which may be one-fifth of the manufacturer's output. Overruns, labeling errors, and test product cancellations account for the unmarketability of much of a factory's production. Discontinued items, inventory excesses, and damaged cases provide banquets for many an institution. And at the retail level the merchant, in addition to all the above rejects, must dispose of items reaching their ''pull dates.''
One of the country's oldest food banks is Community Food Resources of Los Angeles County Inc., based in El Monte, Calif. It started in the kitchen of the Grandview Foundation in Pasadena, an alcoholic rehabilitation facility. Grandview's cook, Tony Collier, had a talent for augmenting its menu and stretching its budget with food gifts he solicited from local suppliers.
Pretty soon he was collecting more than Grandview could use and started sharing the excess with kindred agencies, using the garage at Grandview as a small warehouse and ''store.'' Mr. Collier realized that tons of edible food were being destroyed, a fact not publicized by food suppliers, for whom it was cheaper to dump unwanted merchandise than to relabel it or give it away.
A vice-president of the Atlantic Richfield Corporation, Richard Tunison, has taken over the presidency of Community Food Resources and turned the fledgling corporation into a fiscally sound business with the help of Ron Jeffery, a certified public accountant. Under Mr. Tunison, the food bank's board of directors conducted its own cost-effectiveness survey to determine the value of the food supplied.
Armed with long grocery lists, the board shopped three separate markets and recorded the average retail price of about 80 items regularly distributed by the food bank, such as English muffins, cereal, canned juice, cabbages, i.e., only nutritious food (no candy, cigarettes, or liquor).
''If we delivered nothing but the lowest-priced food [salt] to each agency at the average weekly volume,'' Tunison calculated, ''the value would be 12 times the monthly contribution of the agencies'' using the food. Since then, the food bank has raised the agency contribution to $60 a month, in addition to annual dues of $10 each. Few objected. The agencies now number 74. They include children's homes, senior centers, alcohol and drug rehabilitation facilities, and missions. All must be nonprofit and tax-exempt, using the food for on-site meal preparation.
One jam and jelly manufacturer has refused to donate its unwanted products in this country while giving generously abroad, presumably fearful of tarnishing its reputation. ''Nor our policy'' laughs Bonnie Lewis, public relations director of Safeway and a CFR director. Other companies are generous but don't want it publicized. Nabisco, a good friend of foodbanking, requires that every freebie box be marked, ''Donated. Not for Resale.'' Beatrice operations across the United States have provided more than 61/2 million pounds of food for the needy, according to its annual report, since 1979.
In the first six months of this year, the service distributed 1,144,000 pounds of food in Greater Los Angeles, gave out 12,200 weekend food baskets to senior citizens to tide them over while their centers were closed, and provided 550 emergency food boxes.