ON June 27 a different kind of food line is scheduled to be formed. A congressional delegation, led by Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), will tour the Department of Agriculture's limestone-cave food warehouses in Kansas City, Mo.
The caves hold 315 million pounds of surplus dairy food. Among the 600 federal food warehouses, the Kansas City operation is one of the largest. The congressional group wants to learn why there is not a correspondingly large vision about getting the food to the poor.
The USDA announced in May that its cheese giveaway program is about to be sliced thinner: from 55 million pounds in March to 25 million pounds by August. That comes out to less than a pound of cheese per month per poor person. The USDA claims commercial sales are being hurt. But to date, neither the USDA nor cheese companies have offered Congress any exact data on how the poor are hurting the dairy industry. Only scare talk has been heard.
Despite the disbursement of 270 million pounds of cheese in the first 15 months of the program, the surplus grows. In May 1982, the federal pantry held 683 million pounds. By last month, there were 803 million pounds. Surpluses in butter and dry milk are also up.
The bulging food bins mean increased storage costs: from $270 million in 1982 to an estimated $380 million this year. While the Reagan administration spends more than $1 million a day in storage fees, emergency food programs for the poor have their own statistics of increase. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington reports that in more than half of the 181 programs it surveyed the number of people coming for food rose by more than 50 percent in a recent one-year period. The newcomers to hunger were mostly people victimized by the billions of dollars in cuts in nutrition programs from food stamps to school lunches.
Hard times are one thing, but the Reagan administration is attacking the poor with a policy of miserliness. What other conclusion can be reached? Reagan officials set out to decimate food and nutrition programs to which they were ideologically opposed. Starvation diets for food programs were the extension of the Reagan philosophy of no free lunches. Now, two years later, a policy of denial is paired with a program of plenty: The food warehouses get bigger while the food lines get longer.
The Reagan administration is now trying to convince the country that the recession-depression is over and economic recovery is well on the way. It will have to go some ways to persuade Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.). After a visit to food programs in Missouri, he told a Senate subcommittee that he had a "great sense of alarm" over the spreading hunger and malnutrition he sees in his state.
When the administration began cutting food programs, it told the churches and service organizations to get involved. They already were, long before the Reaganites postured as the inventors of voluntarism. But even heroic efforts of people who run the food banks and soup kitchens have been doomed. The groups regularly come to Congress to say in their exhaustion that they have no money for the administrative costs of getting surplus food from the government to the poor.
Second Harvest, a national foodbank organization, reports a typical case: "Forty-three agencies in Cincinnati, Ohio, distributed cheese during the first distributions. All but one quit due to costs and inadequate resources. The remaining agency, the Free Store, has absorbed the costs of over $8,000 for storage alone at the expense of other program expenditures."
A few days ago, the House Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a commodity distribution bill offered by Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). It would provide up to $50 million a year to help states and service groups pay the administrative costs of food distribution. The bill extends and broadens the temporary food emergency legislation that was in the jobs bill but expires in September. The administration, which successfully weakened that bill, says it "will probably oppose" the Panetta bill.
Undeterred by this negative record, Richard Lyng, a former meat industry lobbyist who is second in command at USDA, claims the administration is "giving away more food than ever." The boast is hollow, because Congress, heeding the pleas of local groups who face the poor everyday, has forced the surplus giveaways.
At best, those giveaways do little to offset the takeaways: the cuts in established programs like food stamps. The new affront to the poor is that the government's leftovers are becoming luxuries.