Standing among 35 elderly citizens as they ate a free lunch in a church basement, John Bode, 28, the Reagan administration's number two person in food programs, said, "I came here to learn." His audience, with more pressing urgencies than educating the bureaucracy, ate on. It wasn't until a question-and-answer period at the end of the meal that the official had his desired learning experience.
Bode said in explaining the Department of Agriculture's recent reductions in cheese distribution--from a peak of 50 million pounds to about 25 million now--that a major concern was "commercial displacement." Cheese companies were suffering economic losses, he said, because a large number of people "stopped buying cheese because they were getting it free."
The pastor of the church, who oversees the feeding of 600 people every day, gagged on Bode's comment. He wondered aloud what kind of government it is that cares more about protecting food-company profits than hungry people. Bode couldn't offer much in reply, except the standard piety that the Reagan administration was doing its utmost to feed the truly needy.
If the politics of cheese says anything, the reality known by the nation's hungry and underfed is much different. According to the National Cheese Institute, sales in 1982 were down 1.6 percent. For the first quarter of this year, the annualized drop is 6.6 percent. Even if the poor, who are not heavy consumers of cheese because of the high prices, were to blame for the declines, a question is still unanswered: Why is the USDA cutting back 50 percent of its cheese distribution when this year's sales are down by less than 7 percent and last year's by less than 2 percent?
The institute itself admits that, after sales increases every year for decades, the recession is having an effect.
To finger the poor as a cause of one wealthy industry's minor hardship, when other industries are suffering severe slumps, is only part of an attack on the hungry. The other is that the shorting of cheese occurs when the federal surplus has never been higher.
In 1979, USDA warehouses had 50,000 pounds of cheese. The stockpile today is 851 million pounds. Record surpluses exist in butter and nonfat powdered milk. While warehouses fatten, the mayors of cities see an unprecedented rise in emergency food appeals from the poor. Food centers and soup kitchens that fed a few hundred people three years ago now see double and triple that number.
Officials of the Reagan administration appear determined not to see anything unfair about bulging warehouses and empty stomachs nor anything shameful about a nation of food lines. Instead they worry about chiselers. Last December, a USDA official told a reporter, "That's not the elderly and needy you're talking to in those food lines. There are people who take advantage of these things." Last week, Bode among the elderly poor also spoke about moochers crashing the cheese lines.
The bureaucratic underlings are in step with the no-free-lunch obsessions of Ronald Reagan. His welfare queen who drove her Cadillac to the supermarket to cash in food stamps apparently is now stopping at the cheese lines to fill her trunk with a tub or two of USDA brie.
Though Reagan has dropped the welfare queen from his speeches, his lack of interest in facts about the poor persists. At his most recent press conference, he stated that, "We have 4 million more people getting food stamps because we redirected more effort and $3 million more in spending in food stamps." For Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), who conducted hearings in June on surplus food and hunger and discovered "mismanagement and inefficiency" in the USDA, the president is "spouting numbers that don't make sense. How can you feed 4 million more people with $3 million? That would be 75 cents a year per person. That's the kind of figures David Stockman came up with."
In addition to cuts made in 1981-82 that resulted in a $7 billion reduction in food stamps (House Budget Committee figures), the administration now opposes a bill passed 389 to 18 in the House that would expand emergency food assistance to the poor.
On June 27, this opposition took on symbolic meaning when a delegation from Congress went to Kansas City to tour the USDA's warehouses. Media camera crews were barred from photographing the stockpiles. "Our government," said Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), "didn't want the public to see the 700 million pounds of stored food, while we have 20 million people going to bed hungry every night."
The poor are no longer invisible, only the food.