HUNGER IN AMERICA IS REAL Millions go hungry because the government has cut back too far on food programs.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Hunger in affluent America in the 1980s? ''Not proved,'' we hear from official Washington. Stories of families going hungry are said to be exaggerated, and telecasts from soup kitchens are dismissed as anecdotal evidence, not facts and figures. While the debate continues, millions of people in this country -- many of them children -- often go without food. I think that's a disgrace, and I am not alone. But for whatever reasons, there is a tendency to deny the problem rather than solve it. Those who oppose federal food programs make four basic arguments against them: that the need is overstated, that the programs don't work, that they cost too much, and that the private sector should do more and the government less. The first point is simply wrong. I was a member of a bipartisan study group, organized by the nonprofit Center for National Policy in Washington, that recently recommended changes in federal agricultural and food programs. We found abundant evidence of increased hunger in America, due partly to continuing unemployment and inflation and partly to reduced outlays for programs covering child nutrition, food stamps, and aid to families with dependent children. The Harvard-based Physicians' Task Force on Hunger in America estimated early this year that up to 20 million Americans suffer from hunger several days a month. That was the latest in a series of studies that began in October 1982, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors brought the issue to public attention. This bipartisan group conducted a national survey and found hunger to represent ''a most serious emergency.'' Opponents of food assistance programs quibble over numbers and definitions. The President's Task Force on Food Assistance reported early in 1984 that it too found hunger in America but could not measure its extent. Later, a bill to set up a national nutrition-monitoring system that would provide such statistics was voted down in the House after Reagan Administration spokesmen declared it unnecessary. Lacking an official hunger census, we look elsewhere for evidence. The Commerce Department estimates that the number of Americans living in poverty jumped from 24.5 million in 1978 to 35.3 million in 1983, more than at any time since 1960. Today a family of four at the poverty line (an annual income of $10,200) has less than $10 a day to spend for food. Two out of five of the people living in poverty are children. The poverty rate for children under the age of 6 has reached 25% and is far higher among blacks and Hispanics. The Reagan Administration argues that despite its spending cuts it has maintained a safety net for the poorest in society. Others contend that poverty statistics do not accurately reflect the total income of the poor because many receive in-kind benefits such as food stamps and free school meals, or that some people go hungry because federal programs are poorly managed, not underfunded. However, it seems clear that many people are hungry today because the government is spending too little to help the needy. A recent Commerce Department survey indicated that 40% of the poor get no in-kind benefits whatever. Of the remaining 60%, many receive only one benefit (often medical care). Department of Agriculture figures show that the number of poor receiving food stamps dropped between 1980 and 1983, while the number of Americans in poverty was increasing. Nationally, food stamp benefits average 47 cents a meal. What does 47 cents buy? Rice or beans, little or no meat, no fruit or fresh vegetables. Poor mothers say that as food benefits run out toward the end of the month, they often quell their children's hunger with the filling, but not particularly nutritious, combination of popcorn and water. Waiting lists for federal food programs are now common. The Department of Agriculture says WIC (the Special Supplemental Food Program for High-Risk Women, Infants, and Children, which provides cereal, juices, and dairy products to needy families) currently serves about one-third of the mothers and infants eligible for assistance under the program. The other two-thirds are not mothers who choose to pass up benefits or do not know how to get them; some WIC clinics have long waiting lists and have to turn away eligible mothers and children because funding isn't adequate. Anyone still undecided about the need for continued and effective food programs should visit a soup kitchen or a food pantry (volunteer groups that hand out canned goods and staples) and talk to the workers and recipients. I did. I may not know the number of hungry Americans, but I know that a serious problem exists. I also know that those who say nutritional programs don't work are mistaken. Despite horror stories about food stamp cheats (such examples can be dredged up about any large program) food assistance has been remarkably successful in the U.S. LET'S LOOK at the record. A brief chronology of efforts to end hunger in America begins with the Great Depression and the first food stamp program, which helped both farmers and the unemployed. Hunger was largely forgotten during World War II. But in 1946 the U.S. Surgeon General testified that large numbers of wartime draftees had been rejected because of poor physical development due to malnutrition in childhood. The National School Lunch Act was passed as ''a measure of national security.'' The economy grew but hunger remained, and in 1961 President Kennedy made more surplus agricultural commodities available and reestablished a pilot food stamp program. Under President Johnson the food stamp program continued, and a school breakfast program was begun. President Nixon called for an end to hunger in America at a White House conference in 1969, and Congress created WIC and a nutritional program for the elderly. A comprehensive food assistance network, developed by both Republican and Democratic administrations, was in place to rescue those who slipped through the cracks of our economic structure. Health professionals began to find fewer malnourished people and credited food stamps, Head Start, school meals, and WIC. Between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s the problem of hunger was identified, and millions of the hungry were fed as a result of humane and imaginative federal programs. Yet now, a few years later, this his- tory has been forgotten and hunger has reemerged at a time of general prosperity. Why slash programs that are needed and effective? Over the past four years, $12 billion was cut from nutrition programs, including food stamps and school breakfasts and lunches. Poverty grew, food costs rose, and hunger increased while assistance diminished. Nevertheless, the Administration and the Senate want to cut nutrition assistance by nearly $400 million in 1986. Some of the WIC money already appropriated to feed poor mothers and infants this year is being withheld by the Administration. These actions arouse few cries of outrage. Washington assures us that poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are floating away on a tide of economic growth. We are also told that more urgent issues confront us, such as rising defense costs and the gigantic budget deficit. Hunger has been buried in an avalanche of other national problems. I believe we've lost our perspective. As an economist and a businessman I know the dangers of deficit spending and I strongly favor deficit reduction. But the whole constellation of food programs came to $18.5 billion last year, or only about 2.2% of federal spending. Further cuts in this area will only increase suffering while making a token impact on the deficit. Those who oppose the war on hunger have another argument. Instead of relying on government, they say, we should form partnerships between the public and private sectors to address massive social problems. The private sector has become much more active in the delivery of social services. But this concept is commendable only to the point at which private actions become a substitute for public sector responsibility. AMERICAN CAN has studied food and nutrition for a long time and has identified areas in which the private sector can work effectively to supplement public sector programs. A company foundation is working with the Citizens' Committee for Children in New York City on a project to evaluate the local school meals program. We are helping the Conference of Mayors develop model municipal food policies. We are funding a program to improve the distribution systems of Second Harvest, a national organization that supplies soup kitchens and food pantries working to meet emergency needs. Donations from the food industry to Second Harvest rose from ten million pounds of food in 1980 to 76 million pounds in 1984. Other private contributions to food banks, as well as a relatively modest government contribution of surplus food, brought total emergency supplies distributed last year to 140 million pounds. But the success of volunteer programs does not lessen the responsibility of government. Today hunger is a social and public health problem, and government must do its share. Otherwise, hunger will exact terrible penalties in higher health care costs, a higher death rate, and millions of poorly nourished youngsters growing into poorly functioning adults. Hunger in America is not the crime of the poor, it is the shame of the affluent. We must stop putting cost-consciousness first when the issue is hunger. Let's help our hungry neighbors by insisting on adequate government funding for programs that deliver food to those in desperate need.