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Pampered Pets, Hungry Children - Which Come First?

IT'S the old question: What to serve for dinner?

As I push my shopping cart along Aisle 4 at the supermarket, my eyes scan the shelves, considering the possibilities. Should I choose Fine Sole in Aspic ("New! Pate-style") or Delicate Whitefish and Tuna in Aspic? Then again, what about Seafood Supreme with Crab Entree or Simmered Chicken and Beef ("New recipe!")? If nothing else appeals, there's always Diced Veal Entree.

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Decisions, decisions.

But wait. These decisions have nothing to do with dinner for the people at our house. This is the pet food aisle; I'm shopping for the cat. It is an aisle where the reigning adjectives are "gourmet," "premium," and "optimum." Where labels emphasize good nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet. Where the gold-label choices command relatively gold-plated prices: three cans for $2, instead of four for $1 on the ordinary brands.

Yet for pet-pampering at its most extreme, perhaps nothing tops a new "daily pet drink" called Thirsty Dog! and Thirsty Cat!

"Are you still giving your pet tap water?" an ad for the product asks accusingly. "Until now," the ad says, "there were no beverages designed to meet the discriminating taste buds of our companions from the animal kingdom."

Talk about snob appeal - the equivalent of Perrier for pets. No wonder pet food has become an $8.7 billion a year industry, nearly double the $4.4 billion Americans spent on dog and cat food just 15 years ago.

Pet food is, of course, a voluntary expense. There are no taxpayer dollars involved, no government agencies providing Aid to Families with Dependent Cats and Dogs. For those who choose to give Fido and Muffy the best, that is their prerogative.

Still, a sign at the checkout counter of another supermarket can bring a pet-food shopper back to sobering reality. "Think hunger can't happen in your town?" the sign asks. Urging customers to "Stop children's hunger," it explains that a $5 donation goes directly to help hungry children in the area. That $5, I calculate with a pang of guilt, is roughly equivalent to seven cans of premium cat food.

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Even in our largely white-collar suburb, a food pantry feeds about 100 families a month. As hunger goes, this is small stuff. But multiplied across the nation, the problem becomes severe. An estimated 15 million American children are hungry or at risk of hunger, according to the charitable group Feed the Children. For the 1 out of 5 children who live in poverty, there is probably nothing gourmet or premium or optimum about the food they eat or the beverages they drink.

In the nursery rhyme, it was Old Mother Hubbard's dog who lost out when her cupboard was bare. Across America, real-life children may be as likely as pets to suffer hunger pangs. An annual index of social health released last week by Fordham University lists child poverty as one of six social ills that researchers found to be at their worst recorded levels.

Similarly, a recent analysis of 18 nations by the nonprofit Luxembourg Income Study finds that America has proportionately more of its children living in poverty than other Western industrialized nations.

These troubling studies are worth remembering as Congress begins reconciling House and Senate welfare bills. Too many cuts in social spending, depriving the poorest families of necessities, can produce more hunger. Already even suburban food pantries say they are facing harder times this fall, the result of reduced charitable giving and cutbacks in government programs.

Autumn represents the season of overflowing cornucopias, the harvest of plenty. In a prosperous nation, finding sufficient resources to be sure that children and families are as well-nourished as their four-legged companions should not be difficult. Finding the will to do so should not be either.

In a prosperous nation, finding the resources to be sure that children are as well-nourished as their four-legged companions should not be difficult.

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