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Feeding the Children

THIS is the season when newspapers bulge with grocery ads, when shoppers crowd supermarkets to stock up for holiday feasts, and when gift catalogs feature such extravagances as dipped apples at six for $84 and 16-pound prime rib roasts for $200. But it is also a season when many destitute people have too little to eat because of shortages at soup kitchens and shelters.

A report by the US Conference of Mayors finds that 15 percent of requests for emergency food went unmet during the past year. On average, the number of families with children needing emergency food aid rose by 14 percent.

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Those figures come on the heels of a report this month on malnutrition among homeless children. A year-long study by the New York Children's Health Project shows that nutritional deficiencies for toddlers and preschoolers in shelters can be up to 10 times as great as for children in economically stable homes. Food shortages are only part of the problem. Mothers of families living in shelters complain about limited cooking facilities and refrigeration, a lack of access to supermarkets, and prepackaged meals that offer little nutrition.

The report's findings have implications reaching far beyond the 200 children studied, and beyond even the nearly 10,000 homeless children in New York City. At a time when ``Cut welfare!'' has become the cry of politicians in Washington and elsewhere, the study serves as a sober reminder that punitive attitudes toward poor mothers risk producing the worst kind of trickle-down economics for their children.

In a land of plenty, hunger should be regarded as a disgrace to the community - a condition so unacceptable that politicians ought to marshal all available resources to feed the hungry, particularly hungry children. The suggestion that private-sector groups will pick up the slack after government cuts by opening soup kitchens and food pantries is probably wishful thinking.

It has been 30 years since President Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Politicians are still spending a lot of time and energy quarreling about whether the Great Society programs worked. Safe in their own economic security, they manipulate statistics to support their theories. Meanwhile, countless children whose empty stomachs provide those statistics continue to go to bed hungry. For how much longer?

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