Eleven months ago, during his debate with President Carter, candidate Ronald Reagan E asked the American people: Were they better off than they were four years ago? Three years from now, some enterprising contender could well fashion similar questions for the American people about the Reagan administration's food policy:

Is your food safer and more wholesome than it was four years ago?

Do you have access to more nutritional guidance for you and your children?

Are you being given adequate information on the labels of the food you buy?

In other words, when it comes to food are you better off than you were four years ago?

The answer, on all counts, is almost certain to be no. Advances in food safety and nutrition promotion during the Reagan administration will be virtually nonexistent. Instead, in line with industry complaints, the administration is rolling back the government's efforts in these areas.

Government programs that subsidize agricultural interests, like marketing orders that maintain higher prices, have a much brighter future. Already, the administration has bartered away its opposition to expensive sugar and peanut subsidies in return for votes on its economic package (though it has continued to back the trimming of milk price supports).

"Reagan has a hypocritical approach to removing regulations in the food area," says Tom Smith of the Community Nutrition Institute. "He's getting rid of those regulations industry doesn't like, but he's ignoring the ones industry wants to keep."

It is perhaps not surprising that an administration whose symbol is the jellybean considers nutrition an expendible matter. The Department of Agriculture's nutritional efforts are already being destroyed.

Under the Carter administration, the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services published a free pamphlet offering seven basic dietary guidelines for Americans. It gave broad, but valuable, advice -- counseling decreased consumption of sugar, sodium, alcohol and fats, and the maintenance of a diversified diet that includes enough starch and fiber. The pamphlet was enormously popular. More than 7 million copies were distributed, many through individual requests to the department; some private companies found it so useful they distributed copies en masse to their employes.

"I would have tried to argue that every household in the country ought to get the thing," says Chris Hitt, a former staff member at the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, who worked on influential Senate studies that provided an underpinning for the guidelines. "Given the kind of health savings that apparently accrue to an improved diet, according to the studies that have been done, it is an extremely valuable piece of information to get out."

It won't be getting out to a large number of people much longer; the Reagan administration has decided to cease free distribution when the remaining supply of about 80,000 copies runs out. Industry trade groups have been unfriendly toward the publication, because it, like other nutritional information efforts, may be a factor in helping to reduce meat and egg consumption as health-conscious Americans move to limit their intake of fat and cholesterol.

Assistant secretary of agriculture for marketing and inspection services C. W. McMillian, a former National Cattlemen's Association lobbyist, says the USDA will continue nutritional information efforts, but "will now do it on fact and not opinion."

"What that means," says former assistant agriculture secretary for food and consumer services, Carol Tucker Foreman, "is that now we're going to get the meat industry's definition of the facts."

An ambitious effort launched in the previous administration to improve food labeling also appears to be derailed. Improved food labeling is a prerequisite for improving the nation's diet, since processed foods now compose fully half of the nation's food supply.

In late 1979, the Agriculture Department, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission, published an extensive series of proposals -- some of which would require congressional action -- to increase the information required on labels about sugar, sodium, fat and nutritional content.

But the process -- which admittedly slowed when former administrator Donald Kennedy left the FDA -- is now being spoken of by staffers in the past tense. "Not too much is happening," says one FDA analyst who has worked on the plan for years.

The FDA's major labeling initiative on sodium content has yet to be fully revealed. When entering office, FDA administrator Arthur Hayes issued some tough talk about sodium's role in causing high blood pressure, which afflicts 50 million Americans. Hayes should know: He came to the FDA from the hypertension clinic of the Hershey Medical Center. But the FDA has quickly retreated from any mandatory salt labeling (except as an addition to existing nutritional labeling requirements) and is now preparing a plan that depends largely on voluntary industry action.

The administration's most direct attack on good nutrition has come through the school lunch program. Not only has it proposed to reduce the portions available to the children participating -- so that they no longer meet one-third of the minimum daily allowances for numerous nutrients -- but it is proposing to allow less-nutritious foods to be used in the lunches.

Under the plan, for example, cakes, cookies, doughnuts and pies could meet the bread requirements; pickle relish would qualify as a vegetable. Schools would be allowed to switch back from low-fat to whole milk, a move that flies in the face of the dietary guidelines.

"Not only will children be eating more sugary, fatty, salty foods than before," says Connie Liebman, a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "they will be led to believe that such foods are good for them. Obviously we can forget about the school lunch as a model for teaching healthy eating habits."

At the same time, the Agriculture Department is moving to rescind a year-old rule prohibiting the sale of junk foods at school until after classes. "They're saying, 'We're going to let the businessmen into the schools and have direct access to molding the eating habits of our children,' " says Foreman.

On food safety issues, also, the loud industry demands are drowning out outer voices. Already the federal food safety laws are under severe attack on Capitol Hill. Legislation that would redefine a safe chemical additive as one that shows "an absence of significant risk" has been introduced in the House by Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.) and William C. Wampler (R-Va.); and in the Senate by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The bill is designed to weaken four laws that protect consumers from unsafe food products -- the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act.

If passed, the bill would effectively cripple the Delaney Amendment, which prohibits cancer-causing substances in food. Like other recent efforts to erode consumers' defenses in the marketplace, this particular legislation was initiated by industry, particularly the American Meat Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Though the Reagan administration has not officially commented on the legislation, FDA administrator Hayes last month gave strong indications that he has serious doubts about Delaney: "If there is anything that this agency is fundamentally responsible for, it is the safety of foods and food additives. But zero risk? I don't think that's possible. Nowhere else in our society do we expect or act upon zero risk."

On the other hand, scientists have not been able to determine any "safe" level of exposure to carcinogens.

Hayes' sentiments are already being transformed into policy. Contrary to the recommendations of its own board of inquiry, the FDA in July approved sale of the artificial sweetener aspartame. The board of inquiry could not rule out the possibility of carcinogenicity, and therefore recommended further studies to determine whether the sweetener causes cancer.

G.D. Searle & Co., which markets the sweetener, claims that its own tests indicate aspartame is safe for human consumption. But John Olney, an independent scientist from Washington University in St. Louis, charged that Searle's test results were full of irregularities.

The case was so murky that the board of inquiry, although disputing Olney's assertion that the sweetener may cause immediate brain damage, recommended further long-term testing. The dispute is far from settled, and the FDA's approval is unlikely to be the last word on aspartame.

The Agriculture Department's interest in food safety is best indicated by the June decision to transfer the Food Safety and Quality Service from the consumer to the marketing division, headed by former cattle industry lobbyist McMillian. "Now that division is responsible for promoting and policing," says Tom Smith. "It just doesn't work that way."

The way it works is quite clear. Six weeks after the reorganization, the FSQS announced plans to revoke a Carter administration rule requiring that mechanically deboned meat products list on the label how much powdered bone they contain. Under the revised rule, they would only have to note the calcium content. The meat industry had strongly opposed the previous rule.

Brought down to the level of the dinner table, these kinds of decisions typify what the administration's program of "deregulation" really means. Reagan is offering food shoppers not freedom from "burdensome regulation," but less nutritional guidance, less information at the supermarket, repealed or weakened safety standards reflecting the requirements of corporate greed rather than public health and a generation of children brought up to believe that pickle relish fills their need for vegetables. That is not deregulation, but desertion of the government's legal and moral responsibility to promote the safety of the food supply.