Hunger is one of those tragic subjects that people tend to associate with famine in the Third World - yet hunger exists right in the United States. Shockingly, the extent of that hunger as it affects children is far greater than previously realized.

A three-year nationwide study indicates that 5.5 million children under age 12 - about one in eight - know firsthand the meaning of hunger. Another 6 million are at risk because of their family situation and poverty.Those figures are unacceptable in a modern industrial nation considered one of the world's wealthiest. There will always be pockets of poverty in almost any nation, but this is one country where poverty should not automatically mean hunger, particularly not for children.

The figures were gathered by the Food Research and Action Center - a nutrition advocacy organization. Surveys and interviews were done in urban areas of Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota and New York and rural areas in Alabama, California and Florida and the figures were then projected over all states, based on state populations.

When extrapolated to Utah, the statistics indicate that about 11 percent of the state's under-12 population suffer from some degree of hunger. This is a little less than the national average, but still represents more than 51,000 Utah children.

While some may dispute the accuracy of the count, the study does seem to provide at least a credible rough estimate of the hunger problem. What it says is that millions of children are hungry in America.

Hungry children are in families with incomes 25 percent below the poverty line. While such families spent an average of one-third of their income on food, that amounted to only 68 cents per person per meal. The biggest portion of income went for shelter - up to 60 percent for the poorest families.

It's not that hungry American children are being starved, but their family income stretches only so far. Parents usually skip meals first, but children will frequently miss meals and diets tend to be skimpy and repetitive.

As a result of poor diet and intermittent hunger, young victims are more likely to be tired, irritable, unable to concentrate, and suffer headaches and weight loss. They are absent from school twice as much as other children. The damage to learning can affect the youngsters the rest of their lives.

The good news is that eliminating hunger would not require vast new programs. Most programs already in place could handle the problem if they had more resources and were accessible to more families.

These steps include improving benefits and access to food stamp programs; ensuring that all eligible, low-income women receive assistance through WIC, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children; increasing the availability of the school breakfast program and bolstering the school lunch program; and expanding the availability of existing meals for low-income children not in school.

A single B-2 bomber is more expensive than some of the food programs for children. What is needed is national commitment, a determination not to allow children to go hungry.

In response to the study, a coalition of anti-hunger groups, businesses and congressional leaders are starting a national campaign to end childhood hunger. The Kraft General Foods Foundation is providing $750,000 to start the campaign. At least five bills have been introduced in Congress to deal with problems raised in the study.

Even if it takes more taxes, the elimination of hunger among its children is one challenge that should find everyone on the same side.