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Food and public compassion

The US government, running annual deficits of $200 billion, needs to save money when it prudently can - but not at the expense of those least able to defend themselves, the poor and near-poor.

There should be no backsliding on the national commitment that all in need shall have adequate food. This commitment virtually eradicated malnutrition from the land over the past two decades. Yet studies now indicate, as do reports from urban facilities which feed the poor, that there is a resurgence of hunger among the poor.

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Thus, there is cause for concern about two developments in Washington relating to government subsidies of food. One is a proposed revamping of food-stamp rules; the second is the probability that a proposed increase in child-nutrition funding will not become law.

Aim of the food-stamp rules changes is laudable: to end abuse of the program. But reports indicate that the proposals might work a substantial hardship on many who are eligible and apply for food stamps. They would be required to show documents, possibly including birth certificates for each family member, to prove eligibility before food would be provided. The wait could be days or weeks , not an appealing prospect for the poor, especially those with children. Too many of the needy find that treatment at food-stamp and welfare offices can be dehumanizing or accusatory; it is important that any changes in food-stamp rules be humane in design and be promptly and compassionately administered.

The second development is a proposal approved by the House of Representatives to restore to the 1984 budget some $100 million, trimmed two years ago, for child nutrition. The measure now seems buried in Senate committee, and the Reagan administration has threatened to veto it if the Senate should rescue and pass it. Opponents of the bill insist that the really needy children already are being fed.

However, 3 million students and 2,700 schools dropped out of the subsidized lunch program two years ago. While the number of children receiving subsidized school lunches reportedly has begun to rise again, proponents of the proposal say many children in need are still ineligible. Of particular concern are the near-poor, for whom much of the increase would be targeted: It would decrease their lunch costs from 40 cents to 25 cents, for example. Overall, approximately half the $100 million increase would be spent on lunch subsidies and an additional one-third on increasing the nutritional content of school breakfasts. Providing these funds would also make the program more viable in schools where the very poor are only a modest percentage of the student body.

Even as the economy continues its solid upward move, it is important for the nation to keep in thought that many people are left behind at the moment. They and their children need to be fed.

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