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In the first state-commissioned report on hunger since 1987, university researchers found that five million people in California - one in six state residents - suffer from "chronic hunger," and another three million are at risk.

The report by three public health researchers at the University of California at Berkeley shows that the number of Californians unable to adequately feed themselves or families had increased by 42 percent in the past eight years."It's a really frightening problem because of the severe consequences that come from hunger - like malnutrition, low-infant mortality rate, increased medical care and special education costs, crime, work and school productivity," said the report's lead author, Linda Neuhauser.

In an interview, Neuhauser acknowledged that more studies are necessary to determine the severity of California's hunger problems, but she hopes the report will convince federal and state lawmakers that further cuts in welfare and food programs will do more harm than good.

"We all know that there are shrinking budgets," Neuhauser said. But "we feel that the worst place to make up for that is to try to save money for food assistance programs. It's morally and fiscally irresponsible."

The study was requested by the Senate Office of Research and is being released today to state lawmakers and numerous government and private agencies. It is expected to be used by some lawmakers and advocates for the poor in their battle against proposed cuts in state and federal welfare and food programs.

A family suffers from chronic hunger, the researchers explained, when it endures "dry spells" with no food or when "parents start depriving themselves to feed their children.

"Another typical family strategy," they said, "is to cut down on the quality of food, to buy non-nutritious meals like popcorn or dilute the children's milk."

The report attributes the dramatic increase in the number of people who are hungry to the state's economic recession that lasted from 1989 to 1992; a lack of affordable housing; the low minimum wage; and cuts in government programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Neuhauser and the other researchers, Doris Disbrow and Sheldon Margen, say that the only way to turn back the tide of hunger is by increasing financing for welfare programs.