State officials in Maryland are trying to quickly enroll thousands of low-income women in a federal food program as part of an emergency effort to prevent the return of up to $940,000 to the federal government this fall.

In a plan announced yesterday by Adele Wilzack, director of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the state will hire temporary clerks, or pay the current staff of local nutrition offices overtime wages, in order to sign up more women and children eligible for free dairy products, juices and cereals.

The state currently is reaching about 46 percent of the women and children eligible for the aid, said Richard Hegner, an assistant to Wilzack. That means that about 62,000 Maryland women who are eligible have not been reached, he said. Nationally, about 32 percent of the eligible population is receiving help from the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) food program, he said.

The state also will increase the quality and quantity of foods being distributed to the 46,000 households currently in the program. "The packages now are at the minimum value specified by the USDA," said Joan Lewis, a spokesman for the department. "This will enhance the nutritional value." There was no immediate estimate on how much more the state would spend to improve the foods.

The strategies were part of a special plan devised by a task force on the Maryland food program that was established last week by Gov. Harry Hughes. The governor acted after the Maryland Food Committee, a citizen's advocacy group, complained about the $1.2 million in WIC funds the state has returned to the federal government in the past year.

The Maryland program has been beset by a number of problems, including wildly fluctuating estimates of available money, computer troubles and lack of staff. This has made administration of the program difficult, said Steve Trageser, director of the Maryland WIC program.

Last spring, the state made efforts to drop 6,300 recipients because of a perceived lack of money. Those efforts were suddenly reversed after more than $1 million in federal funds from the federal jobs bill materialized. It is this extra money that state officials fear they cannot distribute before the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, when any unused money must be returned to the federal government.

The task force also suggested the state set up emergency centers to distribute food to WIC-eligible women.

Hughes has promised to pressure members of Congress to keep spending levels for the WIC program high next year so that the women and children added because of the one-time jobs bill money won't be forced off the program when that money is exhausted.