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As recession lingers, US again battles problem of hunger

It's all those tons of surplus butter that bother Nicole S., a young mother who's standing in a Manhattan soup line because she lost her secretarial job in June, her food stamps in September.

''I'm especially indignant about . . . a picture I saw (in a newspaper) of those under-the-surface caves full of tons of US surplus butter,'' she says. ''Shouldn't some of it be given to poor people? Why isn't it given at least to the churches, which have been so generous in helping people, and distributed through food-stamp outlets? Are they saving it for national defense?''

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When Nicole S. wonders why the surplus food in the United States can't be used to feed the poor, she is asking a common question - and touching upon one of the many possible answers to this problem.

''There are 137 million tons of food a year in this country that are not consumed . . . there's enough to feed 50 million people,'' says anti-hunger activist Mitch Snyder, head of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) in Washington. ''There are growing numbers of the hungry, but there are the resources to feed them.''

Mr. Snyder is standing knee-deep among bushel baskets full of tomatoes and string beans, which represent one of his solutions to the hunger problem: gleaning surplus fruits and vegetables from Washington-area farmers daily and channeling them to the hungry in a free food ''store'' at Calvary Methodist Church's social hall.

CCNV, a controversial but innovative group that occasionally tangles with the law, has also made a cause celebre of salvaging edible food from supermarket dumpsters. It catered for a congressional committee a highly publicized lunch including crab quiche made from what they scavenged: food from a dumpster, discarded for being beyond the ''pull date'' and cosmetically imperfect produce. As a result of that demonstration and attendent publicity, both Giant and Safeway Supermarkets in Washington have agreed to allow authorized feeding groups to pick up daily loads of produce, dairy, and baked goods slated for the dumpster, screen them for edibility, then distribute them to soup kitchens and other programs.

The need to find solutions to the rapidly escalating numbers of the hungry grows more urgent each month, as winter looms and private feeding agency lines swell with thousands of the ''new poor'' who have worked all their lives and suddenly find themselves jobless. Many of these feeding agencies are run by churches, whose ministers say they are responding to the Biblical injunction: ''If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled, notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit?'' (James 2:15,16)

The Reagan administration contends that the private sector must play a greatly enlarged role in stemming hunger. But from Houston Street in Manhattan to Houston food agencies report they cannot feed the rising tide of hungry Americans, up at least double from last year, according to the 33 national sources surveyed by the Monitor.

Minister Ed Rowe of Cass United Methodist Church in Detroit, asks, ''Why can't someone stop the insanity of the federal government that thinks church and volunteer organizations can deal with the overwhelming hunger problem? . . . Whatever 'charity' was coming from the private sector (isn't) coming now.''

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One of the chief barometers of private-sector food programs is the National Council of Churches' Domestic Hunger and Poverty Division. Its director, Mary Ellen Lloyd, says, ''The hunger problem nationally is three times - and in some places four times - worse than it was a year ago. Every group I talk to is up that high, and that's 106 of them, some direct soup kitchens, some emergency food cupboards, from Maine to California.''

Private-sector experts say there's enough food in the US to supplement government hunger programs, but not replace them.

''There is enough food out there if it's channeled correctly,'' says George Coventry, head of the Southeast Michigan Food Coalition in Detroit, an interfaith organization made up of 300 emergency food providers.

Among the innovations he suggests: community canneries, gardening projects, tailgate markets to bring farmers and low-income people together, and training to set up community food co-ops. He also stresses restoring cuts made in much-needed backup programs that provide social workers and legal-aid services to help distribute the food to the needy. That includes thousands of people who lose food stamps because they can't master the complex, 21-page Michigan eligibility questionnaire, Coventry says.

The ways of channeling food to the hungry are as diverse as innovation will allow: In New York City, a newly formed group called City Harvest is redistributing tax-deductible surplus food from restaurants, caterers, and retail and wholesale outlets, then delivering it to soup kitchens and emergency food centers around the city. Also in New York, the Yorkville Common Pantry (YCP) has opened a soup kitchen at a local public school, pioneering a unique exchange between the public and private sector with the sanction of the city's Department of Education. After hours, the school cafeteria chef prepares hot meals for hungry adults with YCP donated food served by pantry volunteers.

In downtown Manhattan, the First Moravian Church Center's Coffee Pot Project also blends public and private resources. In addition to church backing and community donations, New York City contributes $400,000 a year in a grant to pay some expenses as well as hire full-time staff. The project daily feeds a capacity of 175 homeless people three meals a day, says social worker Jennifer Barrows.

In Washington, inner-city and suburban churches experiment in unique joint efforts to feed the hungry at places like St. Stephen and the Incarnation, an Episcopal church, and SOME (So That Others May Eat).

Most of the country's soup kitchens and emergency food pantries are members of a national food-bank group, Second Harvest, based in Phoenix, Ariz. It solicits surplus but edible food products from the national food industry and distributes these products to a network of 43 food banks around the country who in turn distribute them to more than 6,300 local charities providing either emergency food boxes or feeding programs for the poor.

Jack Ramsey, executive director of Second Harvest says, ''We're only a source of supplementary food for emergencies . . . filling the gaps in a Band-aid way. . . . Our real mission is to eliminate waste of food from happening in the US and we use that waste to feed hungry people. . . . You can't project these sources of feeding as an alternative to basic (government) programs of entitlements like food stamps. . . .''

Mr. Ramsey confirms that Second Harvest has had informal help from the administration through the volunteer efforts of two prominent administration wives, those of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and White House chief of staff James Baker III. Second Harvest is popular with large food manufacturers because it guarantees surplus food won't be resold in the marketplace, and in some cases provides companies with a substantial tax reduction.

Currently, controversy rages within Second Harvest over charges that big food companies are attempting to control the organization in order to distribute surplus food and guarantee their own tax deductions.

At the Capitol Area Food Bank in Washington, the number of participating feeding agencies is up from 130 to 207 in the last year, and climbing. The bank now feeds 50,000 people a month with food at 10 cents a pound. The giant warehouse is stacked high with a typical month's basic food, including 8,000 tons of bread. But like other food banks it also gets tax-deductible donations of such nutritionally dubious items as marshmallow topping.

All of the federal feeding programs are under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, whose administrator, Samuel Cornelius, refused a Monitor request for an interview. A departmental spokesman, Robert F. Leard, appeared later with several aides.

Mr. Leard, denied that cuts had been made in federal feeding programs. ''What cuts? . . . The food stamp program is at virtually the same amount of people as before. If anything, we've tightened a little the eligibility.''

The Food and Nutrition Service was asked to provide figures on funds and people cut from its feeding programs in fiscal '82 and '83. In USDA parlance, they responded with figures on ''savings'' in money and numbers of people deemed ''ineligible.''

In fiscal '82, the department said, $1.53 billion was cut from the food stamp program, and along with it 875,000 people. In fiscal '83, projected cuts total $ 2 billion, says USDA, but less than 1 percent of all households (7.4 million households on food stamps) would be cut. The money cuts are being effected by cuts in benefits which, according to one Leard aide, would affect 50 percent of all households.

USDA said cuts in nutrition programs such as school lunches and breakfasts totaled $1.39 billion in fiscal '82 (3 million children have reportedly dropped out), with no new decreases projected in fiscal '83, while the program for pregnant women, infants, and children up to six has been increased from $930 million to $960 million in fiscal '82, and a related commodity program has been increased by 125,000 participants.

Asked about the people cut from food stamps, Leard said: ''That's not the elderly and needy you're talking to, in those food lines.'' He stated the USDA view that the people in these lines are not the people who are the agency's priority - ''the truly needy'' whom it wants to target along with preventing waste, fraud, and abuse.

He suggested that the private agencies have no official way to check the eligibility of those they feed, and that ''there are people who take advantage of these things,'' misspending their money and then turning to charity in a pinch. One aide suggested, for instance, that money saved by standing in soup lines is spent on television sets and other extras. Leard said he hadn't visited any soup kitchens, but had seen them on television. The department regularly monitors both the TV and printed press, investigates the cases of those who speak out, and suspends from benefits those it deems ''ineligible,'' says Leard.

Carnegie Corporation president Alan Pifer, co-chairman of the New York State Nutrition Watch Committee, said a six-month study by the committee shows hunger is on the rise in the state due to federal cutbacks.

When told of USDA spokesman Leard's views that those on soup lines are not the truly needy, Mr. Pifer responded: ''What makes them think that? We discovered no evidence of that at all. . . . The administration simply refuses to recognize that there are . . . people who through no fault of their own can't find jobs and need help. . . .''

But Leard stresses the Food and Nutrition Service is also involved in other areas to ''alleviate'' the feeding problem. Principally he cites the dairy-commodities program, which last year authorized 200 million pounds of surplus cheese to be distributed, with 150 million pounds already been distributed to the states. The surplus butter that Nicole S. wondered about amounts to 50 million tons, of which 3 million pounds has been distributed since last summer. Also, there are over a billion tons of nonfat dry mlk, a small segment of which is being distributed in a pilot program in three states. A Leard aide said the program's primary purpose is to help dairy farmers, although some of the hungry are helped, too.

The names of food recipients in this and the accompanying article have been changed to protect their privacy.

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