Poor families who have come to depend on surplus food distributed by the federal government will receive significantly less food next year because of massive budget cuts.
The shortage will be acute in Maryland, where the state expects to get about half as much food as it distributed last year and less federal money for administrative costs, such as transportation and storage.
Maryland will have available for distribution less than 4 million pounds of commodities such as butter, peanut butter, rice and corn meal, compared with 7 million pounds in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
The food is passed on to thousands of poor families at nearly 700 sites statewide.
"We see in 1994 a substantial decrease in the amount of food we can offer," said Mel Ginsburg, administrator for the state's Emergency Food Assistance Program.
The demand remains high at soup kitchens and food pantries, according to those who run them. Some providers have turned to the Maryland Food Bank, buying food to make up for the lack of federal supplies.
"Demand is as high as ever," said Mary Ann Laing of Catonsville's Emergency Food Ministries. "But we're not hurting yet. We will be in February."
Meanwhile, unexpected price increases, driven by the summer's flooding in the Midwest, have reduced purchasing power. Rice, for example, has gone from 18 cents to 32 cents a pound on the wholesale market, Mr. Ginsburg said. Peanut prices are up, affecting the cost of peanut butter, one of the most popular foods available. Flour has been scarce for more than a year.
Poor families that have built their food budgets around the availability of federal commodities may be thrown by the fact that distribution dates are farther apart, with only three dates a year instead of the usual four.
"We're hoping it doesn't have an impact. But, the reality is, it probably will," said Jeffrey Perlow, surplus food coordinator with Baltimore County's Community Development Department.
The cuts took effect Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal government's fiscal year. But the shortages became apparent this month, which had been one of the four distribution periods under the previous system. Families expecting to pick up groceries found out they would have to wait until next month.
However, some commodities are available on an emergency basis through the state's food pantries, which give supplies to people in crisis.
In fiscal year 1993, the federal budget for buying food was $163 million. This year's budget is only $80 million. Administrative costs, apportioned to the states under a formula based on poverty rates and unemployment, have dropped from $45 million to $40 million.
Families qualify for the program if they are receiving help through one of four public assistance programs in Maryland -- welfare, food stamps, energy assistance or Medical Assistance -- or if their annual income is no more than 150 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that means a monthly income of less than $1,800.