Food stamps: The controversy surrounding food stamps approaches the magnitude of the program itself. In the 1960s a group of Field Foundation investigators traveled around the country attempting to document hunger in America. When they returned to Washington, their findings provided the impetus for the food stamp program. Ten years later people had benefited from food stamps and other programs designed to feed infants, children and the elderly, and the same investigators "couldn't find the same signs of hunger," says nutritionist Dr. Jean Mayer.

Now, says Mayer, Americans face a "national failure of nerve." This administration, he says, has "a profoundly pessimistic view of the world," one that accepts hunger as a fact of life, that believes doing something for the poor will only "institutionalize the pauper class."

Mary Jarratt, assistant secretary in charge of food and consumer services for the USDA, counters the accusations. "We are now feeding one-tenth of the population, 90 million people a day. I don't think we need to feel guilty about that. I think we've gotten our budget cuts from removing higher-income families. It's not negatively impacting the lower range of incomes." She asserts that the administration's "major activity for feeding households" is the food stamp program.

But Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, insists that a little more than $100 million (from about $2.5 billion for the total program) is saved by cutting higher-income families from the program. "The bulk of savings has come from reduced benefits to families living below the poverty line."

* Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC): This program is designed to improve the health and nutrition of infants, children and pregnant and nursing mothers by providing coupons good for iron-fortified baby formula and cereal, fruit juices, milk, cheese, eggs and dried peas and beans.

Several studies show the program has reduced pre- and post-natal care made necessary by medical complications related to malnourishment. The USDA had proposed combining the WIC program with another health program into a block grant and allowing the states to run the program. This would have cut total program money by about 25 percent. In addition, the nature of block grants is to allow states to spend the money as they see fit, which means there would be no guarantee that the money would go toward WIC. Congress has refused to support the proposal.

"Fortunately the department has been singularly unsuccessful in getting Congress to go along with the cuts," says Greenstein, adding that the proposals to add chocolate milk and sugared cereals to the list of suitable foods for the program translates into "no commitment to recipients and little commitment to nutrition." Health-care professionals who administer local WIC programs have praised USDA's past commitment to the program.

* Child nutrition programs, including summer programs, school lunch and breakfast and day care meals: School lunch is the administration's major child-feeding program, according to Jarratt. The USDA has attempted to reduce regulations to allow some freedom to individual school food service programs. One attempt was the ketchup-as-a-vegetable debacle that grew out of a change in portion requirements for school lunches. This included counting ketchup as a contribution to the vegetable allotment of the typical meal.

When the portion requirement proposals didn't work, the department adopted the popular and apparently effective program that allows students to refuse two of the five required items in a school lunch. The school gets paid in full for the lunch, the student doesn't take what he won't eat and plate waste is reduced: everybody's happy.