The scene was somehow familiar. Women in long Indian cotton skirts with babies strapped to their fronts, more than a few men with beards and even the occasional pony tail, the buffet of cheese donated by a food co-op and organic vegetables laid out on trays. Very few people smoking. The Capitol Children's Museum room had all the ambiance of a church meeting hall. It was okay to wear blue jeans and sit on the linoleum floor.

And the sweet tenor of folk singer Peter Yarrow -- could there be a Good Liberal Cause in the last 20 years not christened with his songs of commitment? ("I've grown old listening to him sing," said one woman.)

So what was it -- No Nukes? Stop the Draft? No, this time the cause was baby formula, and this time the money was being raised for INFACT (Ifant Formula action Coalition), a collection of 450 groups that have been organizing the boycott against the Nestle S.A., the largest producer of formula worldwide.

Although the boycott has been going on since July 4, 1977, it has not made much of an impression in the Washington area. Unlike grapes, lettuce, or J. P. Stevens sheets, you don't see many "Boycott Nestle" bumper stickers in this area. Thursday night's fund-raiser was INFACT's first.

"It's time now to bring [the boycott] to Washington," said INFACT national chairperson Douglas Johnson to the crowd. "To the international community and to the government . . . ."

The reason INFACT wants people to stop buying Nestle products, and those of its subsidiaries -- including Stouffer's hotel and restaurants and frozen foods, Los Hermanos wines, L'Oreal cosmetics, and Major Grey's chutney -- is to bring pressure on Nestle to hault the promotion of infant formula in developing nations.

Nestle Managing Director Arthur Furer has called the boycott a "witchhunt," and said that "lies and distortions" have been "used to turn well-meaning people against us."

According to INFACT, more than 10 million babies a year suffer from malnutrition and other diseases that can lead to death because they are bottle fed and not breast fed.Nestle disputes the figure of 10 million babies, citing a news story in which the doctor who made that estimate called the number "symbolic." Studies have shown that mother's milk provides valuable ingredients that protect the child from disease. Even formula makers agree that breast feeding is the most nutritious and least expensive way to nourish an infant.

The decline in breast-feeding, INFACT members charge, is attributable largely to the promotional campaigns of infant-formula producers. Advertisements showing plump babies, say the INFACT people, reinforce the idea that a formula is just as good as mother's milk. They say that companies like Nestle encourage the sale of formula not only by advertising heavily, but by distributing free samples at hospitals, asking doctors to sanction the use of formula, and by hiring nurses to promote sales.

The use of formula would be less dangerous, INFACT members say, if so much of the marketing weren't directed at developing nations. There, uneducated, poor mothers often dilute the formula to make it last longer, unknowingly starving their children, and are often unable to prepare the milk in the sterile conditions required.

"Although health authorities worldwide agree that 98 percent of all women can successfully lactate," an INFACT statement says, "the promotional campaigns used by Nestle and other companies often serve to undermine a mother's confidence in her ability to breast-feed, and convince her to turn to the bottle instead. And once she starts using infant formulas, her breast milk production stops, leaving Nestle with another customer."

Nestle rejects the idea that it has beguiled ignorant women into foregoing breast-feeding, and says that its products have saved the lives of children whose mothers are either dead or severely malnourished.

The decline in breast-feeding over the last 10 years has been documented by international health agencies, such as the World Health Organization. Aside from the legacy of prudery from Western culture and the middle-class appeal, many women feel they cannot breat-feed a child and continue to hold a job.

At a World Health Organization conference in Geneva last fall, makers of infant formulas agreed to stop marketing campaigns in developing countries. "This will be easy for us," Furer was quoted in a German interview. "We started to take the necessary measures in 1976 and gradually reduced media advertising for infant formula in the developing countries. There has been no such advertising since the summer of 1978." This does not include "educational services" requested by local governments, a spokeswoman said.

Nestle says it always makes it clear that "mother's milk is the best milk of all."

A spokesman for Nestle noted that the company does not market infant formula in the United States. Worldwide, she said, its sales account for about one third of the estimated $750-million market.

"By far the vast proportion of sales are to middle-class people in urban areas, who know how to use it," she said.

"When we started we had had four endorsers and a budget of $500; now we have 450 groups," said Johnson, 30, who recently moved to Washington from Minneapolis, where INFACT began as a group of about 20 members of the Third World Institute. Now, he says, he is paid a salary of $600 a month, and the organization is looking at a budget of about $500,000 a year -- although a few weeks ago they had only $1,000 in the bank.

"We started by going around to schools and churchs showing the movie "Bottle Babies," he said, sipping herb tea in the walkup apartment in Mount Pleasant that he shares with other INFACT workers. "The boycott really started in response to the constituency we developed from those movie showings."

For years they've relied on the "grass-roots communications sytem" of food cooperatives and church newsletters, liberal publications, and other "cause" constituencies.

Other antiformula campaigns, focusing on lawsuits, legislation and pressure involving the three top American producers have been waged by other groups, particularly the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility. INFACT focuses on the boycott, which they claim is now international, because Nestle is a Swiss corporation and thus not accessible through all of the same means the American companies are.

The turning point for INFACT came in 1979, when they undertook a direct mail campaign, underwritten by a liberal firm in Santa Barbara, that sent out six million letters.

"That brought income, support, and publicity," Johnson said. Thus the move to concentrate more efforts in Washington, to hold fund-raisers with television stars like Linda Kelsey of Lou Grant (who donates the proceeds from a commercial she once made for a Nestle product, but who was prevented by the flu from coming to Washington) and to seek national publicity and congressional support.

They are, in effect moving into the big time.

Johnson does not believe Nestle's claim that it has ceased marketing campaigns in Third World countries as they and other companies agreed at the WHO conference.

"I don't think they're out to kill babies, I think they're out to make money," he said. ". . . I've been in Indian villages where there are only three products for sale: matches, cola and infant formula. Do you have any idea what an effective distribution system that represents -- and to people who have no hope of using the product safely?"

There is no evidence to show that the boycott has hurt Nestle financially, he said. "We don't have any Deep Throats, and that's what you need to get that kind of information," he said.

Johnson believes that "we know we must hurt them because of the amount of money they've put into fighting us." The company, he claims, expanded its "corporate responsibility" staff, hired a well-known public relations firm, sent a 35-page booklet to 300,000 clergymen and subscribers to Fortune magazine explaining their position, plus two additional mailings, and for a while was participating in public debates on the issue. The company also invited a group of U.S. clergymen to a meeting in Vevey, Switzerland.

"The Nestle people have not been able to discern any impact from the boycott," said Paulette Barrett of the Daniel J. Edelman public relations firm, which Nestle hired. "It is not unusual for a 100-year-old company to be concerned about its image or to hire a public relations firm, or to have an office of corporate responsibility. Most of the responsible companies do."

She said that many of the WHO recommendations on marketing were "vague," and that "nobody is sure yet what may have to be done to implement the guidelines. It may be we don't need to make any changes to comply with them."

Along the way, INFACT has been endorsed by groups as disparate as the American Association of Evangelical Students and the American for Democratic Action. Good old Dr. Benjamin Spock is on the list, as well as the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)., All this support is further indication of their success, Johnson said.

"We want the campaign now to go domestic," Johnson said. "We think there's a significant health problem in the United States as well."

There were several hundred people at the fund-raiser, including several congressmen. Many of the guests were here for INFACT's three-day conference at the All Soul's Church, or for the board meetings earlier this week.

INFACT fund-raising coordinator Moe Rudenstein said they hoped to clear about $2,000 from the event. AFSCME paid for the rental of the Capitol Children's Museum room, he said, and most of the food was donated.

"What should we do with this?" interrupted a young man carrying wires and speakers, as guests were gathering around the wine and apple juice dispensers.

"Find someone who knows how to set up a sound system," Rudenstein said, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't know," he said to a visitor. 'They just told me a little while ago to get a sound system. I said, 'But it costs $150!', but they said, spend the money. In Washington, you need a sound system."