The District welfare department has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for help in feeding thousands of low-income mothers and children who could go hungry this year unless the city is included in a federally subsidized food program called Woman, Infants and Children (Wic).

The program, administered and financed by the USDA, provides free food vochers to low-income pregnant women, infants, preschool children and malnourished new and breast-feeding mothers. Food products prescribed on the vouchers are obtained from local food stores participating in the program.

WIC also provides particpants with instruction in good nutrition practices.

"The program serves as an adjunct to good health care," said Natalie Zetter, director of the public health nutrition section of the city's supplemental food program.

An estimated 1,052 WIC programs currently feed more than 1.2 million people in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In the District, it is estimated that at least 7,000 people who were eliminated from the city's supplemental food program by a USDA participant-limit could now qualify for the program, Zetter said. The supplemental food program provides needy mothers and children with free USDA food packages twice a month.

Earlier this year, the number of people participating in the city's supplemental food program jumped from 9,000 to the 13,000-person ceiling USDA imposed for the District program, Zetter said. The USDA has refused to increase the ceiling, she added.

At a public hearing last week, nearly 50 city officials, citizens and social service workers from private, nonprofit agencies met to discuss the merits of the WIC program and the plight of the city's hungry residents.

Several social service workers testified that WIC would aid needy persons who have found themselves ineligible or the application process too complicated ot obtain food stamps following the federal changes in the food stamp program.

Nutritionists and health officials argued that the WIC program was needed to make up for the serious shortcomings in the supplemental food program. The USDA participant ceiling on the program and the lack of outreach were severely criticized.

WIC, however, was praised for its track record in helping to reduce nutritional problems that contributed to anemia, high infant mortality rates and underweight infant births and for its efforts to encourgae good nutrition habits and breast-feeding.