Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes ordered the director of the state's Health and Mental Hygiene Department yesterday to investigate why a food program that reaches only some of the eligible women and children returned more than $1.2 million to the federal government in the last year.

"I think it is unconscionable. . . to permit the return of scarce federal dollars simply because applications from clients seeking our assistance and help could not be processed in a timely manner," Hughes wrote to Director Adele Wilzac.

Maryland was one of 10 states to return money from the federal jobs bill this summer that was earmarked for its Women, Infant and Children (WIC) feeding program. The director of the Maryland program, Steve Trageser, said his office does not have enough clerks to process the increase in applications that would result from the extra money.

The return of the food money came five months after the state imposed restrictions in an effort to drop 6,300 women and children from the program. At that time, state officials blamed federal cutbacks for the reductions.

The governor was responding to recent criticism by the Maryland Food Committee, an antihunger group, which found that the Maryland feeding program has, for the last eight years, inflated the number of people helped by as much as 15,000 individuals because of a faulty computer system.

Hughes said that the concern of the committee "is indeed justified" and he directed Wilzack to speedily correct the problems, promising to supply "whatever resources" are needed.