The good news from a brand new government report is that the United States is spending $33 billion annually on domestic food-assistance programs serving some 39 million Americans. That's important at a time when virtually every downtown street corner is a living, breathing, billboard for the plight of the homeless and hungry.

The bad news is there are too many separate food programs that needlessly waste results. What's more, the General Accounting Office found that few officials working in the 14 separate programs now operating with federal dollars know what food assistance, in general, is supposed to accomplish. And, in meeting with officials from the Department of Agriculture, which controls the programs through its Food and Nutrition Service, investigators also found there was no written food assistance policy. Incredible!Wisely, the Agriculture Department quickly remedied that faux pas with the following written statement: "The mission of the Food and Nutrition Service is to alleviate hunger and to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation through the administration of nutrition education and domestic food-assistance programs."

Though the written policy provides basic focus and direction for the 14 programs, more is needed.

For starters, one must question the need for so many separate programs. Those operating the agencies argue that multiple programs provide a safety net for those served. They note that the current structure makes food-assistance virtually impervious to benefit cuts. If Congress or the president cuts one program, others remain, unaffected.

Those arguments, however, are shortsighted. Such duplication is burdensome to both those receiving food assistance benefits and the taxpayers footing the bill. And, with the lack of centralized control, the potential for waste should be obvious.

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The current funding equals just over $846 per recipient per year. That doesn't buy a lot of food at today's prices. With 14 agencies and staffs taking a cut of the pie, the overhead is increased, and the amount actually being spent on food is substantially less.

Consolidating programs and streamlining application process are clearly in order. The report suggests four well-reasoned categories: basic food assistance (food stamps and five other current programs), school meals (four programs), women and infants (three programs), and the elderly (three programs). Two of the current programs would fall into more than one of the proposed categories.

Reducing bureaucratic red tape and administrative costs are only part of the benefit that would result. Such changes would go a long way to restoring feelings of basic human dignity and self-respect for those who find themselves needing government assistance.

The heartbreak of seeing one's children going hungry should not, and need not, be compounded by a humiliating process that forces those in need into a nightmarish world of endless application processes and red tape that is unreasonably time consuming, logistically difficult and ultimately frustrating and degrading.

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