A week after the slap in the face, cheeks are still hurting. A group of 20 Appalachian women, including several from this coal field hollow where unemployment is over 60 percent, went to Washington to testify before the Select Committee on Hunger. In the hearing room, they waited their turn to tell of malnutrition in their and other mountain families. Ahead of them was Robert E. Leard, the administrator of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, the agency that directs the food stamp program.
All is dandy, said Leard in his testimony. "I think the (food stamp) program is fine just the way it is. These people can live on the amount they get." Leard did have one reservation -- the freeloader factor. He is out to "tighten up" the rules to prevent the unneedy from getting an undeserved morsel. In the mind of the Reagan administration, it seems that the gravest domestic threat is the food-stamp cheat under every bed.
After Leard, the Appalachian women, "these people," were invited to the witness table to testify. They thought their chance had come to speak directly to power. Surely, they believed, the head of the food stamp program would want to hear from the families at the other end and what it's like to get by on an average allotment of 50 cents a meal.
Leard rose and left. Following him out the door were six aides. In the best tradition of bureaucratic retinues, they had been on hand as the necessary backup crew in case Leard needed the stats to prove that the program "is fine just the way it is."
Leard's departure didn't need to be interpreted symbolically for the mountain women. They know rudeness when they see it, and they know also that an unlistening official typified the attitude of an administration that has cut, by one estimate, $12 billion in food programs. In Roses Creek, Leard's snub is another sign that Appalachia is being written off by the Reagan administration.
At the hearing, the women told of rural hunger and malnutrition and the fear of going under because food stamps aren't enough. Letta Casey of Roses Creek subsists on $153 a month in food stamps for herself and two boys. Their home has no electricity or water. She told the committee of being "lucky." On her one acre of hillside land, she is able to raise crops that provide 75 percent of what the family eats. "If we had not had the garden stuff," she said, "we would have actually starved."
Casey brought her two boys to the hearings. One of them, under questioning from the committee chairman, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), said that at home he ate mostly potatoes and bread. When asked how often he drank milk, he replied "about once a week."
On the subject of food and health, Mrs. Casey said that she had had two miscarriages: "The first baby I lost, I don't know whether it was related to food or not. It probably was to a certain extent. But the second one I am sure about." She told of a local child of three who suffered a stroke and was diagnosed as having vitamin deficiency.
Other witnesses had similar stories. With coal mining in a severe bust in the boom- and-bust cycle, Tennessee has 10 counties with poverty rates of 25 percent or more. Without jobs, families lack money for gas to get to a supermarket. A trip of 30 miles is common, and unaffordable. Unable to travel, people use food stamps at the local grocery, which must necessarily charge higher prices.
In Washington, Robert Leard acknowledges that he and his phalanx of aides left the room without hearing the Appalachians. "I had other commitments," he said. Leard reports that two assistants stayed behind. That made eight, almost a baseball team, in the official party. The two returned to headquarters to brief their boss.
Briefings from underlings is something Leard is used to. He is a former U.S. Army colonel who joined the Reagan team after 25 years in the military. Leard, a West Pointer and an academy classmate of John Block, the secretary of agriculture, had had no experience of any kind in food and nutrition programs.
He claims to be learning on the job, one that pays $70,500. Leard cites a trip to West Virginia, where he spoke with USDA officials. At the hearings, Dr. Jesse Walker, a country physician in the Roses Creek area for 27 years, gently expressed the view that such field trips to lower-level bureaucrats can be useless: "If you go and talk just to the administrators and don't talk to some of the people like you have seen here this morning, you get an idea that the program runs well."
The U.S. Army apparently never taught Leard the importance of getting to the front lines to listen to the troops. Looking at charts in command headquarters, all battles go "just fine." Why listen to the wounded of Appalachia?