It's no secret that some people will go to almost any length to rip off the government, and when it comes to the Agriculture Department's unwieldy food aid and farm subsidy programs, opportunity, it seems, arises early and often.

Deputy Inspector General Leon Snead, noting that his office "devotes a significant portion of its investigative resources to . . . food stamp fraud," reported 379 investigations, 99 indictments and 239 convictions in the six months ending in March.

Besides the sharpies who buy stamps from food aid recipients and resell them at a premium, Snead also reported several transgressions in which stamps were used as the medium of exhange in criminal transactions. In Phoenix, Snead said, one hustler handed over an ounce of cocaine to a USDA undercover agent as payment for $1,300 in food stamps.

Also coming in for serious abuse were the school lunch and adult care programs. In New Mexico, federal authorities accused the director of a school cafeteria of receiving $49,000 for lunches the school didn't deserve. In Louisiana, federal investigators indicted the director of a church family day care program for submitting fictitious meal claims.

Another repeater from earlier inspector general reports was the "Mississippi Christmas Tree" in which farmers "reorganize" their holdings to multiply subsidies.

Snead reported one case in which two companies, each of which had received one payment, "dissolved," then reemerged as a company and two "partnerships" deserving of nine payments. Altogether, Snead said, the three firms received $577,000 in excess subsidies and disaster relief.