SUSPENDING the food-stamp program would have a devastating effect on 19 million of the poorest people in America. For many of them food stamps are the crucial difference between subsistence and chronic hunger. But unless Congress moves soon the program will be out of money, so there will be no food stamps in June, July or August.

Because food stamps are indexed to the increase in food prices, and because many very large, poor families joined the program after the law changed in 1977, the cost of the program has risen dramatically in the past two years. Last September, President Carter asked for supplmental 1980 funding to meet these increases. And each month since then Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland has written a letter to Congress describing with increasing urgency the steps he will have to take to shut down the program if Congress doesn't get the money out in time. May 15 is the day by which the states must know whether there is to be a food-stamp program in June. The time is getting extremely short, and very little progress is being made.

This situation (for once) does not seem to be the result of someone's efforts to kill the program, although the food-stamp enterprise has its detractors. Rather, these funds and several billion 1980 dollars in other entitlement programs appear to be inadvertently-taken hostages in the raging disputes over the 1981 budget balance. Food stamps got involved because of the ponderous system of checks and balances on money matters that has been set up within Congress itself. Providing supplemental funds by May 15 is a real challenge to a Congress not famous for doing anything with dispatch. Mark Russell has said that the only thing Congress can get done in 10 days is to make Minute Rice. This time a lot of poor people are relying on them for the rest of their diet as well.