Each day 150 people wait patiently in a large room at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When their names are called, they step into the food pantry operated by the West Side Campaign Against Hunger and choose their monthly allotment of canned goods, pasta, cereals and maybe meat and fresh vegetables–enough for three days’ worth of meals. This pantry is better stocked than most. Even so, on the day I visited, there was no milk for the many families with young children who had come for help. Since my last visit two years ago, the Human Resources Administration says that demand for emergency food earlier this year had increased 17 percent in New York City, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that food prices there have risen nearly 5 percent over the past year, boosted primarily by higher prices for fresh fruits and milk [see Lieberman, “Hungry in America,” August 18, 2003].

Given food price inflation, it’s easy to see why the pantry’s clients struggle to put food on the table. One-fourth of them double up with other families in cramped living quarters. One-third are school-age children. Half are either working or receive Social Security benefits. The other half, says pantry director Doreen Wohl, “desperately want work. The first thing they ask is, Can you find me a job?” New York is no different from other cities. The 50,000 food pantries and soup kitchens affiliated with America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, have observed an increased need for food that parallels the rise in poverty. In 2001 there were nearly 33 million people living below the poverty line; by 2003 there were almost 36 million. In the past two years, America’s Second Harvest has increased its food distribution by 200,000 pounds, to nearly 2 billion pounds annually.

Despite the limitations of emergency food programs, which range from rationing because grocery supplies are sometimes scarce to lack of choice and availability of nutritious options, more Americans will come to depend on Second Harvest if Congress goes along with a major assault on the nation’s food and nutrition programs launched by the President in this year’s budget. Its casualties, however, won’t become obvious until long after George W. Bush leaves the White House. Although some programs appear to be adequately funded for the next fiscal year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that for the first time since 1989 an Administration budget has not provided information about proposed funding levels for individual discretionary programs beyond the coming year. “They’ve hidden how they are proposing deep cuts that will grow over time,” says center senior policy analyst Dottie Rosenbaum.

The Women, Infant and Children’s (WIC) program, which supplies food to pregnant women and young children, and the Older Americans Act programs, which provide home-delivered and group meals to the elderly, are discretionary programs subject to statutory caps on funding, which the Administration wants enacted this year. Shortly before the Easter recess, both the Senate and the House passed their versions of the budget. While those budget blueprints also call for cuts in the food programs, it’s not clear yet whether Congress ultimately will enact the mechanism to enforce the caps. If Congress agrees with the President, the center estimates that from 2006 to 2010 WIC will be cut by $658 million, with the result that some 670,000 women, babies and youngsters under 5 will not be served. This year the President’s budget provides for no increase in funding for meals for old people–a 2 percent cut, in real terms. By 2010 the cut will be 14 percent, despite the fact that demand for home-delivered meals has gone up steadily for a decade.

The President’s budget also threatens the food stamp program, whose funding depends on the number of eligible people who apply, not on annual discretionary appropriations. Some 300,000 people will lose eligibility under the budget, which calls for eliminating an option that allows participation by working families who have incomes higher than the program normally permits but who also have high childcare and housing expenses. Already only 54 percent of those eligible for food stamps receive them, either because they don’t know they qualify or because the bureaucratic hassle is not worth the often meager benefit they receive.

In addition to food stamps, farm subsidies, also slated for the budget ax, are included in the budget bills that go through the House and Senate agriculture committees. Hunger and food advocates fear that those committees may find it politically advantageous to cut food stamps instead of farm programs to meet their overall spending targets–either by reducing benefits or changing the eligibility rules. Farm lobbyists have more clout than hunger advocates, who have been without a real Congressional champion for years.

Last summer the Senate formed a hunger caucus chaired by Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Unlike special Congressional caucuses of the past, however, this one does not have money from Congress or even its own staff. Its primary objective is to alert legislators about the plight of the hungry and to provide a place for senators to collaborate on food and hunger issues. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the families who come to Doreen Wohl’s food pantry need real advocates in Congress who will fight for something as simple and humane as nutritious food for the very young and the very old and buck a White House whose response to hunger seems to be “Let them eat cake.”