In the 11 years that Inez Ivey has been a District of Columbia foster parent, providing emergency shelter to abused, neglected and sick children, nobody in the D.C. government told her until last Thursday that she could have been getting cartons of free food for the children every month.

"This is awful, and all these years they've had this here! I couldn't believe it," said Ivey, 56, as she stood on line in the basement of the Walker Jones Health Center in Northwest, waiting to get 30 pounds of free evaporated milk, apple juice, spinach, beef stew, powdered eggs and potatoes for her 13-month-old foster child, Louis Young.

"It's making me ill to hear this," said Doris Thornton, the Department of Human Services (DHS) official who administers the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and who acknowledged the department's failure to inform Ivey. "It's just terrible."

Every month for the past year, more than 200,000 pounds of free canned and dried foods and infant formula, intended for low-income mothers and children under the federally funded Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), has gone unclaimed in Washington.

Part of the problem is the failure of social workers and medical personnel to inform people like Ivey of the existence of the program, which was started in 1968 as part of the Johnson administration's Great Society and which, in Washington, has survived the severe budget cuts so many other social programs have faced.

There is an even more vexing problem: Almost half the persons who are enrolled in CSFP fail to pick up their free food every month. In fiscal 1982, the District of Columbia has averaged more than 15,500 participants, but an average of only 7,800 actually picked up their food cartons each month, according to DHS records.

"It really concerns me that someone may be out there needing food and not getting it. As a public health nutritionist, I am concerned," said Thornton. With CSFP's nutritional supplement, she said, "the next generation can be healthier and better developed, and it helps the mothers to stay well. This is important, especially in D.C. with our problems with infant mortality."

Transportation is believed to be the key problem, Thornton said, because most of the pregnant women and mothers with infants rely on public transit and find it extremely difficult lugging the bulky cartons -- which range from about 30 to 50 pounds per person -- while also managing their children.

In the past decade, DHS officials have tried various schemes to improve transportation, including hiring a trucking firm, enlisting the aid of Red Cross drivers, and soliciting citizen volunteers. Each program failed for budgetary or other reasons. Currently, the city has only a single van, with one driver, to assist CSFP food recipients at the seven sites, which are located at neighborhood health centers.

"CSFP has never operated as well in this city as it might, or as well as other cities, because there has never been enough attention given by DHS," said Stefan Harvey, who studied the program in the late 1970s on behalf of The Children's Foundation. "It is inexcusable not to keep the word out in the community, when there is free food available for people."

Dorothy McKinney, director of community food and nutrition for the United Planning Organization, which administers some anti-poverty programs for the city, monitored CSFP for the government in 1978 and concluded it lacked enough distribution sites and transportation.

McKinney said in an interview that CSFP suffered from "indifference and lack of creativity" on the part of DHS administrators. "It is disgusting to see how the organization of available resources could make for greater use of something, like food, but it is not happening," she said.

CSFP was designed to combat malnutrition among pregnant women and young children. It is supposed to supplement the diets of low-income families by providing nutritious foods like peanut butter, evaporated and non-fat dry milk, juices, canned fruits, vegetables and meats.

In most of the country, CSFP was supplanted in 1972 by creation of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program. But in Washington, CSFP remains about twice as large as WIC.

Under the program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the city with free food worth about $2.5 million at wholesale every year. The city spends about $500,000 a year running CSFP, including the salaries of 41 employes who run a central warehouse on V Street NE and the seven distribution points. The income guidelines for participants are the same as those for welfare, food stamps, and free or reduced-cost lunches.

Officials said that because of the low participation, USDA, which formerly shipped enough food for 13,000 monthly pickups, has cut the figure back to 11,000, a reduction of 15 percent.

"We are asking D.C. to look for the reasons and take steps" to increase participation, said USDA regional food program specialist Patricia Dombroski. "It does appear that the word is not getting out to all the people who it should be getting to." She said Washington has been encouraged to explore a system like the one Detroit uses, which includes a well-developed network of donated cars and volunteer drivers and is administered through community organizations.

In the District of Columbia, DHS now using summer interns to call CSFP participants to determine why they are not showing up, Thornton said. She said DHS also is sending letters to welfare recipients reminding them of the program, and is putting up a new series of posters and distributing flyers in city offices to publicize CSFP.

Thornton said some participants fail to use CSFP for reasons other than tranportation. "We have had young ladies who say they didn't come to pick up formula this month because their boyfriend bought some," she said. "They could get extra formula and store it away, but they don't."

Likewise, she said, if a young mother gets a cash gift from a relative to use for baby food, she may end up skipping that month at CSFP, when she could have stockpiled the extra food at home.

"It works very nicely. It's a big help," said Mary Foster, 41, and mother of 8, as she loaded a carton of food into her 1978 Ford Granada outside the Walker Jones clinic. "But they should help people more . . . give people rides." Foster said she has used the program for eight years, often hitching rides with friends or providing them with a ride.

Foster said she has been unsuccessful convincing one of her daughters to use CSFP. "She's signed up, but she doesn't come. She has a baby who could use it, but she doesn't come down."

The program can be reached at 673-6800.