THERE IS NOTHING more humiliating and shameful to everyone involved than to see long lines of people -- the very young, the very old, the down-and-out, the unemployed -- waiting in bitter cold for a handout of food. Most Americans had, in recent decades, taken both pride and comfort in the fact that our nation had achieved a sufficient degree of prosperity and generosity to make such dismal displays of necessity a thing of the unregretted past. Now the lines have reappeared in this and other cities as the federal government begins to dispose of part of its enormous stocks of surplus cheese.

There is no decent way to run a food handout. Some things, of course, made the lines outside city churches on Tuesday much worse than they had to be. No one expected people by the thousands to line up several hours before the distribution centers opened. The federal government also added to the hassle and delay by insisting on full documentation of need -- as if willingness to stand in freezing temperatures for several hours for a five-pound package of leftover cheese were not proof enough. But the doling out of food is an essentially demeaning enterprise -- for both givers and takers.

The indignity and inefficiency of commodity handouts persuaded Congress a number of years ago to extend the food stamp program nationwide as a substitute. That program has done a great deal to reduce human misery, but it is useful to remember that, important as food stamp benefits are, they do not ensure even a minimally adequate diet for the very poor. The food stamp program assumes that, in addition to the coupons it provides, the poor will earmark 30 percent of their other spendable income for food purchases. This is not a reasonable assumption for many poor people, especially those in areas, including the District, where welfare benefits provide much less than even a poverty-level income.

The administration has already cut back substantially on food stamps and apparently intends to cut back more. The government is also anxious to dispose of its expensive and embarrassing stocks of surplus food, of which the present distribution is only a small part. As a result, food lines may again become a permanent fixture on the American scene. This would be disgraceful testimony to two sorts of failure. One is the government's inability to stabilize agricultural markets without becoming locked into costly subsidies of unneeded produce. Another, larger failure is the willingness of a wealthy society to allow the direst need to persist in its midst.