MOSCOW, NOV. 29 -- Pronouncing himself "guilty before the working class," Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began an emergency effort today to ease the country's food shortage with a mix of foreign aid and domestic reforms.

Just hours after Gorbachev told a Communist Party meeting here that he had brokered agreements with the republics of Kazakhstan, Estonia and the Ukraine to ship scarce dairy goods to Moscow and Leningrad, a transport plane landed in Moscow with 37 tons of food from Germany -- the start of what officials said they hope will be a daily airlift to help the Soviet Union get through the winter.

The Soviet legislature has called on Gorbachev to provide a comprehensive emergency food program by next week.

Because of a collapsing distribution system and the general decay of political and economic links throughout the country, food supplies have dwindled badly, setting off fears of hunger and social disorder.

At the party meeting, Gorbachev admitted just how futile previous efforts have been to keep the stores well stocked. "We are guilty before the working class, I think -- all of us, and I personally," he said.

Gorbachev's international prestige may no longer impress many people here at home, but it is becoming a vital tool in the struggle through what promises to be a grim winter.

In the wake of the earthquake in Armenia two years ago, Gorbachev broke Moscow's decades-old xenophobic fear of foreign aid and welcomed relief teams and planes from all over the world. Under previous leaders, such tragedies were covered up, even when it meant that thousands more people died.

During the European summit meetings in Paris last week, Gorbachev held one private meeting after another with European leaders and showed little reluctance about describing the current plight of the country and hinting broadly about the need for help. After his return, he described the great "solidarity" he felt with those leaders.

Gorbachev's lobbying, backed up by his historic concessions and reforms that have changed the map of Europe, appears to be paying off at a crucial time.

Igor Antipov, a leader of the Moscow City Council, greeted the plane carrying 63,000 packaged meals at Sheremetyevo Airport tonight by guaranteeing to accompanying German volunteers that the margarine, pea soup, meat soup and noodles will be taken, under police guard, directly to orphanages and childrens' hospitals.

Germany, by far, has proved to be the country quickest to organize food aid for the Soviet Union. During an astonishing telethon on Germany's ZDF television Wednesday night that raised $3.6 million for food for the Soviet Union, Chancellor Helmut Kohl told viewers that without Gorbachev's help Germany would not have been able to reunite nearly as quickly as it had.

"Please help relieve the need in the Soviet Union," Kohl said. "This is a work of charity and of good neighborliness."

German magazines, publishing houses and television stations made a crusade of the food aid program. Volunteers in Hamburg have already collected more than 100,000 food packages to send to Leningrad, which has imposed full-scale rationing for the first time since the Nazis blockaded the city in World War II.

The Germans, as well as other Western countries including the United States, are convinced that unless the Soviet people have at least a minimum living standard, disorder could break out and threaten the new-found stability of the European continent.

In an ironic footnote to the Cold War and its sudden end, Germany also plans to send Moscow food that was stored four decades ago in case the Soviet Union repeated its 1948-49 blockade of West Berlin. The stockpile of grain, butter and canned foods is worth up to $1.5 billion, according to German officials.

The German division of the Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE) announced it would begin sending thousands of packages of meat, rice, chocolate and other foods. American CARE was one of the aid organizations that helped Germany after World War II.

Dutch television also is planning a telethon to collect money for Soviet food aid, and members of the European Community reportedly expect the issue to be high on their agenda at a summit meeting in Rome next month.

Although the U.S. government so far has been reluctant to send aid, saying the Soviet Union must first pass a liberalized emigration bill, the Connecticut-based nonprofit group AmeriCares plans to ship 180 tons of food and medicine as an emergency "air-bridge" to Moscow and other cities. Its first cargo jet, with 80,000 pounds of food for orphanages and basic medicines for children's hospitals, is to arrive on Sunday.

"We spent months helping out after the {December 1988} earthquake in Armenia, and we feel we've learned the system here as best we can," said AmeriCares program director Ty DeCordova. "The United States and the West can't solve the situation here single-handedly. The Soviets themselves know they have to completely retool their system to survive. But we're here to ease the transition if we can."

Because of the scope of the food problem in the Soviet Union and the fears that a new emigration law might set off a mass exodus of Soviets into Europe, the Bush administration has hinted that it, too, may arrange credits or aid sooner than planned. In recent speeches, both President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have spoken of their concern about the Soviet economy without mentioning the emigration bill.

State Department officials, however, are concerned that food aid might end up on the vast Soviet black market rather than with those who need it most.

The collapse of the Soviet food distribution system is so devastating that press reports about tons of meat, grain and produce rotting in trucks, ports and silos have become commonplace. So have descriptions of how black marketeers steal state-subsidized goods and then sell them at triple and quadruple the original price to a hungry, desperate public.

As a result, knowing how to send aid here is extremely difficult. Recently, Australian farmers offered the Soviet Union 20 million sheep -- potentially millions of tons of mutton. But Soviet officials determined that the cost of transporting the sheep here would be so expensive that the project was impossible.

"Anyway," said the government newspaper Izvestia, "besides the fact that we are too poor even to accept gifts, we can't expect the West to solve all our problems: It's still up to us to get out of our mess." Goskomstat, the state statistics board, said that last year Soviet farmers lost nearly 10 million head of sheep -- millions of pounds of meat. "They rotted through sheer mismanagement," Izvestia said.

Although angry shoppers regularly describe him as aloof or uncaring about the shortages, Gorbachev made it a point on television Wednesday to show that he was well aware of the shortages of basic foods that nearly everyone here faces on a daily basis.

"Everything is rotten now. The people are humiliated," he said in a meeting with artists and writers. "Such a huge country, with such great intellectual potential, with such attachment and love for the land, with such resources, on such a wide scale -- and to live in such conditions! It just cannot go on any longer.

"We're learning. What can I say? I take all the responsibility for what has happened, for everything that's fallen through. I don't avoid the responsibility."

Countless officials and economists have pondered, even dreamed aloud, about a "Soviet Marshall Plan," a comprehensive aid package that would resemble the American program to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II.

But the consensus among most Soviet officials and economists is that aid is only a partial remedy, a stopgap measure to ease the situation while the country goes through the painful process of watching an old system crumble while waiting for a market system to develop.

"A Marshall Plan would be all well and good, but we cannot depend on it. Other countries have their own problems," said Stanislav Shatalin, a member of Gorbachev's presidential cabinet and one of the country's leading economists. "What this country needs to survive and to thrive is a new economic foundation, a new system. There is no escaping it."

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report in Washington.