(Sept. 30) Robbing Peter to pay Paul is an old game in Washington.

So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has, in a span of less than two weeks, twice announced plans to dip into funds earmarked for commodity purchases to pay for disaster relief.

The problem is that what the government is doing is taking food from the mouths of needy children.

Having just announced that it planned to divert $150 million to pay for cattle feed from Section 32 funds that are supposed to be used for surplus fruit and vegetable and other commodity purchases, the USDA said Sept. 20 that it would authorize the use of $752 million in Section 32 funds for livestock disaster assistance.

It sounds innocuous — certainly business as usual for the federal government. Plucking ready cash from one fund to pay the freight for another program is nothing new, after all. The government has been doing the same thing with the mythical Social Security “trust fund” forever, it seems.

The produce industry shouldn’t stand pat and watch this happen. And, it appears, it isn’t about to. More than 30 fruit and vegetable promotion and marketing organizations have sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, pleading with her to reconsider the decision.

She should. Section 32 is a crucial source of funding for federal feeding initiatives such as the school lunch program. For years, advocates of such programs have been pushing for increases in spending.

To stage what essentially is a raid on the programs is not only ill-planned but also unnecessary.

Certainly the government could divert needed disaster relief from other sources. After all, the federal government is, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, spending $20.1 billion on pork-barrel projects in 2002. Among the projects the group cites is a racing museum in South Carolina.

Produce industry leaders want Congress and the General Accounting Office to scrutinize USDA’s use of Section 32 funds. Industry lobbyists also are working with friends in Congress to craft legislation that would prevent further raids without Congressional approval.

It seems a sound strategy, given government’s seemingly irresistible attraction to spending money it doesn’t have.