When a child is starving, do you withhold the bread in your hand until you first determine if he is your friend, what his ethnic background is and what his parent's political persuasion might be?

Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it?But this is precisely what's been happening in the U.S. efforts to help fight world hunger.

Food for Peace was formed in 1954 so surplus commodities, such as beans, peas, grain and dairy products, could either be given away or made available to nations suffering famine, drought or other calamities at low prices or through long-term, low-interest loans.

But Washington has turned the program into a foreign policy tool, using it to reward allies and snubbing less friendly or less strategically vital but often needier areas of the world.

As a case in point, take what happened when Washington decided to help El Salvador with shipments of powdered milk. So much powdered milk was sent that dairy prices in El Salvador collapsed. Likewise, Egypt accumulated so much bread from U.S. wheat and flour shipments that farmers were found feeding it to their donkeys.

Other countries whose food aid outweighs their needs are Honduras, Morocco and Pakistan.

No wonder that the recent session of Congress tried to reform U.S. food aid. Though the reforms mean that more help will be going to poorer countries, the emphasis is still on American self-interest rather than on fighting hunger. Specifically, the reforms stress that preference will be given to recipient countries with a demonstrated potential for becoming markets for American products.

More reform is needed - and it's needed now. So is food. Only this week, Reuter News Service reported that vast areas of Africa stand on the brink of one of the worst famines in history. From Angola and Mozambique in the south, across most of the Sahel through Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Chad to Niger, millions of people - already weak after a decade of falling living standards and poor health care - are at risk.

But world hunger officials fear that political turmoil, increased fuel costs and general weariness with Africa's seemingly never-ending conflicts are combining to delay relief from a world more concerned with the Persian Gulf crisis and food shortages in the Soviet Union.

In any event, food and the threat of starvation should not be used exclusively or even primarily as a foreign policy tool. Surplus food should go first to where the suffering and need are greatest.