More than $2 million earmarked for milk, cheese and high-protein foods for pregnant women and young children in Maryland has been turned back to the federal government as a result of bureaucratic mismanagement, State Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery) charged yesterday.

Simmons, who said his study showed that Maryland uses a lower proportion of the funds available to it than 46 other states, called the statisics indefensible.

"States are fighting for this money," Simmons told reporters in Rockville yesterday. "[But] This program is not seen as an opportunity to reach out. yCall it studied neglect, call it indifference, call it mismanagement, the state doesn't view it as a priority."

The Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program launched in 1972 provides low-income mothers, their infants and young children with up to $260 a month each for high-vitamin and high-protein foods. Funds for the program come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Maryland was budgeted for $10 million in fiscal 1979 but returned more than $2.3 million in unused funds to the federal government.

The state has sent back nearly $8 million during the last four years, Simmons said. He said that could have served 26,500 people.

Virginia, which was allocated $10 million for the program, ranks 39th among the 49 participating states in terms of the proportion of funds used.

The District of Columbia does not have a WIC program, but 12,000 people -- about half of those eligible -- receive food under a similar commodity supplement program.

The program is administered in Maryland by the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. Program coordinator Carol Loomis, asked about the delegate's charges, blamed a bizarre budgeting system set up by the Agriculture Department and some of the 18 local agencies participating in the program.

"We did the best we could," she said. "Not all the counties participated, and then some that did didn't use all their money. And there was the problem of staff space that limited the case load growth."

The Agriculture Department estimates that 122,000 people are eligible for assistance in Maryland under the WIC program. Some 30,000 are currently enrolled, up from 9,500 four years ago.

Loomis said that means one in four of those believed eligible is actually receiving aid. The national average is one in seven, she said, adding she believes the state is simply budgeted for more than it needs.

In Montgomery County, about half of the families eligible participate in the program, Simmons' report showed. But in Prince George's, where 19,000 are said to be eligible, only 2,000 participate.

"There's so much red tape to go through," explained Prince George's WIC director Karn Marci. "The program is especially important because of the high level of low-income people. Many of the young mothers enrolled in the program are adolescents and have diets dominated by Coke and candy bars."

Deirdre Viera of the Children's Foundation, Washington-based non-profit group that monitors laws affecting children, said the Maryland administrators haven't made an aggressive effort to promote the nutrition program.

"Every other state has the same problems," she said. "Why is Maryland at the bottom?"