Starving American Children Dr. Katherine K. Christoffel is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School and an attending pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She told the House Select Committee on Hunger last week that she and her colleagues have documented 16 cases of severe malnutrition in children 18 months old or younger during the past 4 1/2 years.

The children, she said, were starving.

She said colleagues at other hospitals in Chicago have been seeing an increasing number of malnourished children. Most of the children seen at her hospital were not enrolled in the Women-Infant-Children program, the federal program that provides supplemental food packages to poor pregnant women and young children.

Most of the families, Christoffel said, were English-speaking, had lived in the area for some time, and their impoverished circumstances were known to social agencies.

The fact they were not enrolled in WIC "suggests to us that WIC is sometimes inaccessible to children in great need of it. Mothers often tell us that they face bureaucratic hurdles which delay their receiving food. They report being turned away from WIC if they arrrive at the wrong time, at the wrong office, or without each of a variety of required forms."

She said those in greatest need who live in condemned buildings cannot provide proofs of addresses. "These mothers and occasional candid WIC workers convey the impression that because WIC resources are not sufficient to provide for all eligible families, bureaucratic requirements are used as a means of rationing."

The existence of starving children, she said, indicates others are "suffering to a lesser degree." She urged Congress to mandate that malnutrition be a reportable condition, along with polio.

What Christoffel saw in Chicago was not unique. Dr. William G. Bithoney, director of the Growth and Nutrition Clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston, told the committee that "since August of 1984 we have seen 13 children suffering from third-degree malnutrition in our clinic."

Third-degree malnutrition is the most severe, he said, similar to the malnourishment suffered by children in Biafra and Ethiopia. He said the children were from families that had incomes of less than $6,999 a year.

He said a 3-year-old girl had been dropped from the WIC program after her mother failed to comply with administrative requirements. The child's weight dropped to 22 pounds, the normal weight for a 14 month old. A 1-year-old child, also dropped for procedural reasons, was fed diluted coffee lightener because her mother could not afford milk. Her weight fell from 20 pounds to 18 pounds over a nine-month period, so that at the age of 21 months, she had the weight of a normal 8-month-old.

Bithoney said that the state of Massachusetts, in response to growing reports of malnutrition among children, did a survey in 1983 of 1,429 low-income children ages 6 months to 5 years and 11 months. Among the survey findings, he said, was that malnutrition was a significant public health problem, and that nearly 10 percent of the children had low height for their ages.

The Food Research and Action Council (FRAC), five members of Congress and the National Anti-Hunger Coalition have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of five states, alleging that the department has refused to release a portion of the $1.5 billion appropriated by Congress for the WIC program. A spokeswoman for the select committee said that even with the full appropriation, estimates are that WIC serves only one-third of those who are eligible.

The average WIC package for a pregnant woman is $40 a month, says Kathleen McKee, a FRAC attorney. A spokeswoman for Children's Hospital said two weeks of care in a neonatal intensive-care unit for a premature, low-birth-weight baby could run as high as $35,000. The cost effectiveness of the program speaks for itself.

The United States hardly has a food shortage: That children should be malnourished and starving in Massachusetts and in wealthy cities like Chicago is an absolute crime. It is proof that hunger is back and that what Congress and the Reagan administration ought to be doing is increasing the WIC caseloads, letting people know food assistance exists, and making it as easy as possible for the hungry to get food. Anything less is unspeakable.