HOW DID A HANDFUL of do-good organizations do it? How did men in beards and women in sandals, largely talking to themselves, puttering around the world with a good but unlikely cause, manage to reach the political heights of the World Health Organization and humble the United States, with its terrible lone vote against the worldwide ethical code for marketing infant formula?

It's enough to make you take dead seriously their current international boycott against the Swiss-controlled Nestle S.A., the giant multi-national foodstuff company that is the largest producer of formula worldwide. American Home Products and Bristol-Myers also market formula around the world.

Infant formula produces "bottle baby disease" in millions of infants every year. In countries where water is polluted and resources are scarce, it is almost impossible to use the formula properly. The formula is so expensive that some women try to stretch a three-week supply for four months, and the baby becomes malnourished. Many become sick and die.

Only a year ago the national chairman of INFACT (Infant Formula Action Coalition), Douglas Johnson, was telling this sad story to the crowd at a Washington fund-raiser and saying: "It's time now to bring [the boycott] to Washington, to the international community and to the government." The issue had rattled around United Nations' circles since 1972, but it was Johnson and INFACT that focused attention on the boycott worldwide.

INFACT hd started in Minneapolis in 1977 with 20 members and a $500 budget. They toured churches and schools showing the movie, "Bottle Babies," relying on a grass-roots network to spread the word. While other groups focused on antiformula campaigns, INFACT focused on the Nestle boycott.

In 1979, INFACT received foundation funding for a direct-mail campaign and sent out 6 million letters, attracting more funding, publicity and the attention of television stars such as Linda Kelsey of "Lou Grant."

"The grass-roots effort was needed to make it an issue," says Johnson, "make it controversial so health professionals would be heard by policy makers in the various countries."

Meanwhile, frustration was growing among international health agencies and workers who every day saw the lethal consequences of marketing infant formula in developing nations.

Small groups all over the world who had been working separately pooled their resources. The British, for example, got 185 members of Parliament to support a code not only for the developing nations, but also for their own country. INFACT began building a coalition of respected groups in the United States and other countries, gathering under its umbrella organizations of women, churches and health professionals.

The turning point came in October 1979, when INFACT was invited to participate in an international WHO-UNICEF meeting despite its nongovernmental status.

"We brought with us a knowledge of the industry's practices in the field," said Johnson. "We had experience negotiating with corporation executives sitting across the room. We hd heard their arguments. We knew what was true and what was not. We weren't cowed and they couldn't bully us. One of the things that prevented industry from taking it over was our participation, and our history with companies, and our negotiations over time." p

Before last month's meeting and vote, INFACT's international network had monitored the practices of companies selling the formula. Many are predicting that lst month's WHO vote will step up the boycott against Nestle.

INFACT expects people to stop buying Nestle products to force the company to negotiate and stop promoting baby formula in the Third World. They want us to stop buying Taster's Choice, Nescafe, Nestle's Quik, Nestile's Crunch, Nestea, Libby McNeil and Libby products. They want us to forgo the products of Nestle's subsidiaries -- including Stouffer's hotels, restaurants and frozen foods, and L'Oreal cosmetics.

The ethical point here is that these companies represent industrialized countries, and it is our responsibility to keep them under control, rather than foisting that reponsibility on the overworked and underfunded health workers in developing nations.

The Nestle boycott gives us a way to use our economic clout to save the lives of babies. It's up to us consumers to call a halt to millions of babies dying a year, because the thirst for profits has put these companies on an unscrupulous path.

Business Week recently reported that Nestle's percentage of 1980 profits is sagging at least in part because of the worldwide boycott. Nestle plans to bolster its business, however, by going after a larger portion of the United States' market -- a prospect we can diminish by refusing to buy Nestle's products.

A movement that took off after 20 people from Minneapolis decided to take a stand has become a force in the world. We should make certain that it remains a force at home, too.