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Families Back Call for New Strategy on Food

`DON'T forget the stories,'' exhorted Mary Carlson near the end of the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Dec. 13 ``Food Forum'' here. In fact, it would be hard not to remember the stories.

They were emotional accounts of how the government's nutrition programs - such as food stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program - kept families afloat when jobs were lost or disease struck. And there were strong complaints about paperwork the programs require and the inadequacy, in many cases, of the benefits.

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Such individual stories were a big part of the forum, along with policy brainstorming by Ellen Haas, assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, and other panel and audience members.

Ms. Carlson, who heads the nutrition program of the Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity, was admonishing people to make sure eventual policy proposals stack up against the needs expressed at this and other food forums being held around the country by the Clinton administration. Action in Congress

Policymakers in Washington will soon have plenty of opportunities to make that assessment. Senator Leahy, a longtime crusader for expansion of federal food-assistance programs, will try to shepherd his ``Better Nutrition and Health for Children Act'' through Congress next year. Among other things, it would fully fund WIC and strengthen the USDA's school-lunch program.

The Leahy bill represents the ``first complete overhaul of child nutrition programs in 45 years,'' according to Alicia Bambara, press secretary for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, which Leahy chairs.

Ms. Bambara says the bill breaks into three main parts:

* Healthier meals for children. This includes measures to bring federally funded school meals into compliance with USDA nutritional guidelines and to require commodity dealers supplying schools to provide higher quality meats and produce.

* Full funding for WIC. This would extend the program to every eligible mother and essentially make it ``an entitlement,'' Bambara says. Eligibility for WIC is determined by income. The basic standard is 185 percent of the federally set poverty level (or $26,548 for a family of four). The WIC component accounts for about half the bill's $800 million tab.

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* Feeding homeless children. This will encompass more funding for meals in homeless shelters and at day-care centers, as well as nutrition programs for ``boarder babies'' abandoned at hospitals.

The bill seems to be an ambitious undertaking at a time of budgetary constraint, when the president is preaching limits to entitlements, and the public's faith in Congress remains low.

But Leahy, chatting after the forum, exuded confidence that ``it will happen.'' He recalled tougher days on the agriculture committee, when Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina was chairman and Ronald Reagan was president. ``Now I've got an administration which is supportive,'' he said. WIC has drawing power

The key reason the bill has a chance, Bambara says, is the popularity of WIC itself, which is up for reauthorization next year. She cites studies showing that the program saves $4 for every $1 it spends, since it helps prevent underweight newborns that have to stay at hospitals at a cost of $60,000 per month. The bill's backers count on WIC drawing support to the whole package.

Backers of expanded food programs also bank on recent studies that show increasing hunger levels in the country.

The Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University has conducted a number of such studies. Earlier this year, the center's research concluded that 28 million to 34 million Americans were going hungry. This summer, it reported that 12 million children in the US experience hunger.

Beyond those figures, says Larry Brown, the center's director, the ``most compelling'' reason for expanding government programs that fight hunger is new evidence linking poor nutrition and the inability to learn and develop mentally. That evidence, he says, provides ``a scientific basis to see hunger as an economic drain on society.''

Then there's the anecdotal evidence, which piles up at forums like the one in Burlington.

Fran Czajkowski of Randolph, Vt., told how her food stamps average out to $1.34 a meal. Steve Hingtgen directs the Chittenden County Food Shelf, a food distribution agency in Burlington. ``We're being crushed by the demand,'' he said.

Complaints about eligibility rules regarding income and assets -

such as owning a car - were frequent. Assistant Secretary Haas said after the forum that many of the restrictions are intended to prevent fraud in the government's food programs.

``We're taking a look'' at which rules should remain in place, she said. But the top priority, she added, is ``to be sure that the eligible are served.''

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