THE FOOD FOR PEACE program, in the first instance a subsidy for American farmers, is in the second instance a tool of American foreign policy. Recipients buy the food cheap from us, sell it at local market prices, and pocket the difference. Providing quick relief to countries either long on hunger or short on cash, this aid has always gone to governments favored by the American administration in power. The Carter administration, which is now grappling with the question, has not suddenly injected politics into food aid decisions. It's simply applying its own criteria. These are, by and large, those specified in the foreign aid bill enacted last August.

Congress wanted to ensure that food aid goes to government that aren't "gross" human-right violators. But it didn't want to withold aid, and thus make hungry people hungrier on account of the questionable policies of their leaders. So rather ingeniously it provided that "gross" rights violators could get the food if they agreed to use it to help their neediest citizens.

Attempting to administer this complex piece of legislation, the State Department held up new food-aid agreements (worth $28 countries while it checked their human-right records. Of the 11 taken off "hold" the other day, three (South Korea, Indonesia, Bangladesh) have heavy rights violations and thus, to get the aid, will have to show how they'll use it for their neediest. American diplomats are treading lightly, hoping that the three, and perphaps others to come, won't be so irritated at being treated as rights offenders that they'll chuck the program.

Farm-bloc senators, even those known as advocates of human rights, don't like having to explain the new conditions to their constituents, The traditionally export-mined Agriculture Department shares and encourages their irritation. But the State Department is right, we think, to try to pick its way through the minefield of the new law. It is the law. And it's good policy. Among all the categories in which aid is given, food is one that sdeserves to be treated in terms of enlightened humanitarianism. "Food for Peace" was the name given to the program when its benefits went principally to countries on the American side of the cold war. Why not "Food for people now?