FOOD is a good example of how short-term foreign policy and long-term domestic special interests combine to pervert the American foreign-aid program.The short-term foreign policy is the relief of hunger in the third world. Very few people can look at pictures of starving African children with bloated bellies and matchstick arms and legs without wanting to do something about it. The long-term domestic special interest is American agriculture: As long as the American government responds to third-world hunger, there is a large and growing market for the products of American farms. "So what's wrong with this?" asked the late Hubert Humphrey, an eloquent spokesman for farmers and the hungry. What's wrong with it is that there is no end to it. That, of course, is precisely what made it appealing to Humphrey and continues to generate votes for it in Congress: Farmers can go on forever growing more food to sell to the government to give away to hungry people, and the expense shows up not as a farm subsidy but as a charge against foreign aid. Foreign aid makes sense only if it is designed to make its recipients independent - someday - of further aid. In the case of food, this means helping a country improve its agriculture so that it can feed itself - someday. Its food supplies may have to be supplemented from abroad in the meantime, but this should be clearly seen as a temporary measure. The important thing is to increase local production. This has been done with some success in India, but there are not many other such cases. Congress, alas, has strayed from a clear vision of the appropriate objectives of foreign aid. The program has gradually shifted from a way to promote the international interests of the United States to a means of subsidizing various domestic economic interests. This has gained political support for the program but has reduced its effectiveness abroad. Now there is a movement to elevate freedom from want to the level of freedom of speech or freedom of religion as a basic human right. There is even a bill in the House entitled the "Freedom from Want Act." It is sponsored by Rep. Tony P. Hall (D) of Ohio, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, and Rep. Bill Emerson (R) of Missouri, the ranking minority member, and has wide support within the committee. Freedom from want was, of course, one of the four freedoms set forth by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. The concept was carried further in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services But a right does not mean much unless it can be enforced. If there is no food, people will go hungry regardless of what rights they may have. Instead of getting sidetracked over grandiose schemes to end hunger or to ensure freedom from want, we ought to think carefully about the concrete implications of our foreign-aid program as it affects food and agriculture. * One reason some countries have an inadequate agriculture is that governments keep prices too low to encourage production. This is a misguided effort to pander to urban consumers. It means that the available food is cheap but that not much food is available. Will massive food imports subsidized by foreign aid make this worse? * What are the implications for American agriculture of an endless guaranteed market (never mind the fiscal implications for the US budget)? One result is presumed to be a group of contented farmers, and that's important if you are a congressman from a farm state. But does such a guaranteed market slow down adjustments that might otherwise take place - for example, from one product to another? Does it encourage environmentally harmful practices? * What is the effect on broader international trade in agricultural commodities? The Uruguay Round of trade talks is at an impasse because of our demand that the Europeans reduce their agricultural subsidies. Is our foreign aid a kind of back door subsidy? And when will the Europeans start complaining about it? * Finally, perhaps the most important and most difficult question of all: Can it be that there are (or soon will be) too many people in the world to be fed at a nutritionally acceptable level? Given the prospective demand for food, it is hard to see how the agriculture of many African countries can ever be raised to a level of self-sufficiency. Does foreign-aid food simply prolong misery? Is the alternative mass starvation (which, however, might reduce the population enough to make self-sufficiency a mor e likely reality)? Who is willing to face this choice?