As with past storms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture could play a significant role in addressing food shortages and aiding farmers hit by the winds and torrential downpours of Hurricane Floyd.

The department's Food and Nutrition Service plans to provide emergency food stamps to families and work with volunteer relief organizations to help deliver supplies to people displaced by the hurricane.

Beyond such immediate assistance, emergency loans will be available in counties designated as federal disaster areas, and the Disaster Reserve Assistance Program will provide cost-share assistance for farmers in counties that suffer a 40 percent or greater loss in normal feed production.

In addition, some farmers growing crops not covered by federal insurance will be able to apply for assistance under the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, and farmers with land swamped by Floyd will be able to tap the Emergency Conservation Program, which provides money to help restore farmland by removing debris and rebuilding structures battered by wind and rain.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service set up a disaster coordination center in Atlanta on Wednesday to help coastal communities clean up environmental damage caused by Floyd, particularly debris-clogged waterways and destroyed channels, which could leave communities more susceptible to future flooding.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY? It's been 25 years since Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and others helped launch the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition and food program, one of the USDA's most successful aid programs.

Intended to provide food and health care to pregnant women, new mothers and children up to age 5, WIC rapidly expanded from a single clinic in Pineville, Ky., in 1974. It now serves 7.5 million women and children nationwide through state health agencies, according to the USDA.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman celebrated the anniversary of the program at agency headquarters Wednesday, saying that without it, "hundreds of thousands of children would have died or suffered from long-term disabilities and handicaps caused by low birth weight."

All is not sweetness and light, however. A report released late last month by the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, indicated that the USDA could do a better job monitoring and preventing waste, fraud and abuse in the program.

The GAO found that the USDA has no estimates for the amount of fraud by WIC recipients or state-level program vendors. The Food and Nutrition Service has since sought to remedy this problem by conducting studies of its own.

When the GAO conducted an inquiry over a two-year period beginning Oct. 1, 1996, it found that 9 percent of WIC vendors were guilty of some type of abuse. The GAO also found that in six states, 25 percent of vendors abused the program.

GAO Assistant Director Thomas Slomba, however, cautioned that the severity of the abuses varies widely. "If a teller at a grocery store is making repeated mistakes in allowing someone to buy a food product that isn't allowed under the program, that would be considered an abuse," he said.

The larger problem, the GAO says, is that some states are licensing too many vendors, straining their ability to monitor the program.

SUBSIDIZED HOGS: The Sierra Club continues to rail against corporate hog and chicken farms. The environmental group released a study this week, "Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough," that examines public subsidies received by 10 big farming operations.

Kathryn Hohman, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program, unveiled the report (which can be found on the Internet at www.sierraclub.org) at a news conference flanked by a squealing pig from Maryland's Eastern Shore. "That giant sucking sound you hear," Hohman said, "is the factory farm taking hold of the government teat."

REDUCING RISKS: The USDA launched a nutrition and fitness outreach program this week to prevent obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease among African American youth. The Food and Nutrition Service will administer the effort with the 100 Black Men of America, a group that mentors disadvantaged black students. The program will begin with four pilot projects, in Oakland, Calif.; Decatur, Ga.; Greenville, Miss.; and East Orange, N.J.