Washington — The Reagan administration has committed itself to a five-year, half-billion-dollar program to help African nations feed their hard-pressed populations.
In addition to this ''Economic Policy Initiative'' (EPI) for Africa, which was to be announced by Secretary of State George P. Shultz on Monday, the administration is also addressing Africa's emergency food needs.
According to M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID), the administration will be requesting Congress to provide $90 million in supplemental funds for food aid for the fiscal year 1984. Some of the emergency aid will go to Marxist-led Mozambique, where the food crisis is most acute, because, as one specialist here put it, ''starving children really don't have an ideology.''
Last year, it became apparent that the drought in Africa had reached catastrophic proportions, with nearly half the continent facing severe food shortages. Half the world's 10 million refugees can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, moving into countries which are already poor and unable to care adequately for their own populations. Africa's population growth - the fastest in the world at 2.9 percent per year - has added to the strain.
In a telephone interview, Mr. McPherson said that Africa's per capita food production had declined by 20 percent over the past two decades. One of the main problems, he said, was that many African governments held down the prices paid to farmers for their crops, thus subsidizing consumers in the cities but reducing incentives for the farmers to grow more.
McPherson said that the EPI would provide funds to nations which have changed or are in the process of changing their systems to provide greater incentives to farmers. The AID administrator also said that one of the EPI's aims was to stimulate other nations and international financial institutions to provide more aid to reform-minded African nations.
McPherson said that the administration would request appropriations amounting to $75 million for the first year of the $500 million EPI program. He said that he expected the Congress to be responsive to this request and to the request for has over the years provided about half of the food aid going to Africa from international donors, according to the AID administrator.
McPherson praised Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, for his efforts to focus attention on Africa's emergency and long-term food needs. Sentor Danforth returned from a two-week fact-finding trip to Africa on the morning of Jan. 18 and saw President Reagan that afternoon. The senator showed Mr. Reagan color slides from Africa which had been processed on a rush basis on that same day by a commercial photo laboratory outside Washington.
''I think that the President was genuinely moved by the pictures I showed him ,'' said Danforth, who had met with Reagan to discuss the food crisis in Africa before going on his trip.
Danforth said he was pleased with the administration's plans for short- as well as long-term aid but added that it was not clear at this point whether $90 million would be adequate to cover emergency food needs.
Some private voluntary organizations have already decided that $90 million will not be enough.
Carol Capps, who works for Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, said members of an ad hoc group of private agencies working on the food crisis felt that a much higher sum of money was needed to meet emergency needs. She cited a recently completed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to support her comments.
CARE, the New York-based humanitarian aid organization, is negotiating with Mozambique's government to help facilitate emergency relief operations. CARE sent fact-finding teams there twice last year. Senator Danforth said that during his visit to Mozambique, he met with that African nation's leader, President Samora Machel, and received assurances that an American private voluntary organization could play such a facilitating role.
''We expect to work closely with the Mozambique government on the transportation system,'' said Charles Sykes, assistant executive director of CARE. ''We hope to increase the unloading time at the port.''
Mr. McPherson said that the US has so far in fiscal year 1984 provided 187, 000 metric tons in food aid valued at $73.1 million. This would amount to more than was provided in all of fiscal year 1983. Zambia, Mali, and Upper Volta have now been added to the list of nations requiring emergency food assistance. Among those receiving such aid in fiscal year 1984 are people threatened by severe malnutrition and starvation in Somalia, Chad, Rwanda, Ghana, Sao Tome and Principe, and Cape Verde. More than 20 nations have been affected by the food crisis.