The administration yesterday promised to release more than 10 million additional pounds of cheese a month to poor people, as well as increased amounts of other surplus commodities, but President Reagan's new emphasis on hunger drew sharp criticism from House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
"I don't know where he's been," O'Neill said, referring to the creation of a White House task force on hunger. He added that Americans are going hungry because "one particular conservative Republican has led a nationwide campaign of ridicule against America's nutrition programs."
Reagan ordered a 90-day "no-holds-barred" study this week to find out why people are going hungry and what the federal government can do about it. The order came as part of a larger White House effort to blunt charges that Reagan's economic program has been unfair to the poor and disadvantaged.
Yesterday the administration completed a sudden reversal on the cheese giveaway.
It announced that, beginning in October, it would increase by at least 10 million pounds a month the amount of surplus domestic cheese given to the poor. Recently, the level had been cut to between 25 million and 35 million pounds, from a peak of 60 million last March, because of complaints from the cheese industry and retailers that the giveaway was hurting sales.
Only two weeks ago, in fact, an Agriculture Department official said the cheese giveaway should be limited because it had hurt the industry. In a letter to the League of United Latin American Citizens, Lou Pastura of the Food and Nutrition Service said the cheese distribution had coincided with "dramatic declines" in commercial sales.
Pastura said the administration therefore had "stabilized" the cheese giveaway at 25 million to 35 million pounds.
"Things change," a White House official said yesterday of the decision to release millions of pounds of new cheese, including as much bulk cheddar as the states can effectively transport and distribute without waste.
Assistant Agriculture Secretary Mary C. Jarratt told a House Agriculture subcommittee yesterday that, along with more cheese, the government will make available at least 2 million pounds of butter in addition to the existing giveaway of 10 million pounds a month.
Non-fat dry milk distribution will be increased by 1 million to 2 million pounds above a current level of 5 million pounds. Monthly honey distribution will increase from 3 million to 5 million pounds and cornmeal giveaways will rise from 2 million pounds to 5 million pounds.
Jarratt also said the administration is no longer opposed to legislation that would allocate $50 million to help states and cities pay the costs of getting free food to the people when existing funds run out Sept. 30.
Jarratt said the administration wants the states to exercise more care in making sure the free food reaches the poor people who really need it.
Mayor Ernest N. Morial of New Orleans, who headed a U.S. Conference of Mayors workshop on hunger this week, told the House panel that "the gap between the need for emergency food and our abilities to supply it is enormous--and is growing."