At 8 a.m. the "ladies" - as the food service workers call themselves - are at work in the kitchen and lunch room of North Bethesda Junior High School, one of Montgomery County's satellite food preparation centers:

The ladies, who appear predominately middle-aged and who generally live near the schools they serve, will package about 550 lunches to be carried to four nearby elementary schools and prepare another 400 lunches to be served in the junior high.

On this day, the menu for the elementary school students is oven-baked chicken, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, a peach half and a small cupful of raisins and peanuts, supplemented as always with a carton of milk.

Junior high school students will be served pizza, a product made specially from the Montgomery County schools, with a cheese-fortified crust (to increase the protein content), green peas, tossed salad - with cucumbers, onions, croutons and dressings made by the cafeteria workers to be added as the students choose - and peachers. Or they can choose from two soups made at the school and sandwiches.

For dessert they can buy cook ies baked as the school - including a health food variety made with raisins, molasses, eggs, butter and peanut granules - or ice cream, Kraft pre-packaged cheese and crackers or fresh fruit.

The choice is gretter at the secondary school level. "I don't particularly welcome eating in elementary schools. I do welcome eating in high schools, said school board member Daryl Shaw.

At about 9 a.m., Ruth Grabowski, whose job is to help the baker, is slathering melted Agriculture Depatment commodity butter on 400 Wonder Bread slices with a paint brush. ITT Continental Bakeries, which manufacturies Wonder Bread, has been the only company for several years to bid on the school system's bread contract, a school food services official said. The bread is used primarily for sandwiches. The school system makes French bread, banana nut bread and other breads itself.

At 9:30 a.m. elementary schools begin calling in lunch counts - the number of students who say they will buy lunch that day. Two food service workers are in the lunchroom, lading canned peach halves and putting small paper cups full of raisins and Agricuture Department commodity program peanuts on plastic trays. Later the trays will be covered with plastic wrap. Two other women are fixing hot trays, placing breaded, frozen chicken thighs and spooning watery instant mashed potatoes onto aluminum trays.

The potatoes are watery because of the long time they will be in the oven as the chicken is cooking. "If you don't make them loose, they burn," said kitchen manager Marty Strombotne.

The chicken is Holly Farms chicken, breaded, pre-bowned and frozen. "We tried about 10 products, but we liked this best because it has less breading. This is the one the children liked best," said Styer. Holy Farms, a division of Safeway, electrically scans the chicken pieces to make sure they yield at least two ounces of edible protein (a federal requirement for school lunches), she said.

Once the aluminum trays are filled, they are covered with foil and stacked in metals trays. They trays are stacked one on top of each other, which food service officials said keeps the food cold in the short period before they are delivered to the elementaries.

The school system has recently purchased two refrigerated vans, but for now most of the lunches are carried by the ladies. A few minutes before 10 a.m., for instance, Grabowski willback her aging black Oldsmobile to the loading dock nearby the kitchen. For the 3 1/2-mile ride, which takes less than 10 minutes, they will bounce along beside her stacked on the passenger seat of the car and in the trunk.

The workers are compensated for using their cars. None of the lunches is carried more than a distance of 5 miles, and the county's environmental health officials have worked with the food services department on setting up the routes. Generally the food is in the cars less than 10 minutes, Styer said.

Helen Bladen, who makes sandwiches and prepares the salad bar, is slicing onions and cucumbers with tears in her eyes. The salad bar includes an assortment of dressings made by the food service workers - green goddes, blue cheese and a vinegar and oil dressing using commodity peanut oil. Food service workers said that the dressings have helped boost salad consumption.

Alene Dove, the baker, is making molasses cookies. "This is a favorite. If travels well and doesn't break," Strombotne said.

Dove's daughter, Alene E. Dove, the cook, is grinding salami, redolent with garlic for an experimental pizza topping. Students have complained that only one type of pizza, the single most popular item served in the county, is available. The pizza crust, as well as being fortified with cheese, is fortified with vitamins. Cheese used in the crust and on the pizza is pure mozzarella-type cheese with no additives or preservatives, made for the school system from non-fat milk received through the commodity program. The pizza does not contain preservatives either.

"I enjoy cooking," said the younger Dove, as she prepared the pizza. "I enjoy cooking because the kids like it. I don't mind cooking if someone enjoys it."