America's effort to ease its hunger problem is moving from the alarm stage to a search for information, solutions, and more action. The federal government's most recent data on nutritional deficiencies in the United States are for 1980, and they show no significant increases in nutrition problems through the 1970s, despite a gradual rise in the poverty level during that decade.
But since 1980, the US has undergone a period of high unemployment and recession not included in those statistics. In addition, the 1980 data do not cover the subsequent period of funding cuts to some government food programs.
Church leaders, mayors, lobbyists for the poor, and journalists have documented many cases of hunger and need during the past year, especially the last few months. The Census Bureau this month reported that 15 percent of all Americans (34 million people) live below the poverty level ($9,862 for a family of four) - the highest in 17 years.
Even as concerns about hunger grow, government stockpiles of food are piling up. Storage bins and warehouses across the nation hold about 1 billion pounds of cheese, 500 million pounds of butter, and other government-owned food surpluses.
In addition, a large chunk of America's farmland is fallow this year. For instance, about a third of the wheatland remains unplanted. In exchange for not planting, farmers participating in the federal payment-in-kind program are paid a share of the government's grain stockpile - a program aimed at reducing inventories that depress prices of farm products.
Basically, the problem right now is too much food in storage vs. too little food for some. No simple answers appear at hand, but there is some momentum for change:
* As a short-term measure, both Congress and the Reagan administration have agreed to step up distribution of some government-owned food - such as cheese, butter, powdered milk, and honey - to the needy.
* Earlier this month, President Reagan created a commission on hunger, saying he is ''deeply concerned'' about new reports of the problem. Some advocates for the poor and some members of Congress, however, are concerned that the commission may debate the extent of hunger rather than focus on finding solutions.
* Churches across the nation have dramatically increased their food programs for the poor in their communities. (See related story below.)
* On the foreign front, the Department of Agriculture is studying ways to increase food assistance abroad, says Deputy Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng.
He stresses that the current administration is not ignoring America's hungry people. But present food programs to the needy are ''mammoth,'' Mr. Lyng says. ''We probably should not be doing more.''
On this point there is strong disagreement from Congress, many church activists, and private groups, which are calling for greater food assistance.
The current food-assistance programs - including food stamps, the school lunch program, and WIC (aid for women, infants, and children) - were established largely as a result of medical reports in the 1960s about child malnutrition. These food programs ''virtually ended hunger and malnutrition in the US'' by the late 1970s, says Nancy Amidei, director of the Food Research and Action Center, a private advocacy group in Washington.
Now, says Ms. Amidei, President Reagan is trying to ''dismantle'' these programs and has already made funding cuts in some of them, including the school lunch program. It is not surprising, therefore, she says, that reports of hunger are recurring.
Congressional debate over food programs is at a political stalemate. On Aug. 2, the House voted 407 to 16 to pass a resolution opposing further cuts; some House members are pushing to expand the food programs. But the Senate Agriculture Committee, under chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, has drafted a plan to trim food stamps and other programs, congressional sources say.
Meanwhile, hunger in places like Atlanta is a ''very serious'' problem, says Frances Pauley, who lobbies the state General Assembly for increased assistance to the poor. Changes in food-stamp eligibility rules have hurt some people, she says.
But churches increasingly are helping to feed the hungry - programs that in turn may help ''rejuvenate'' some churches, she says. And a local program has begun to help the poor in another way: Customers of Atlanta Gas Light Company can volunteer to overpay their bills - then the company matches, in part, the donations, which go to help the poor pay overdue power bills.
Another Georgia-based program, Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization , is raising funds to help build houses for the poor, charging only cost without profit or interest on 20-year loans. A good home encourages people to look harder for work and get an education, he says. The program has built some 1,000 homes in the US and abroad.