Maryland counties, working under a Sept. 30 deadline, are distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of free food this week to needy families.

Officials in several counties said the federally funded food giveaway is the largest in which their counties have been involved in recent years.

The Prince George's County Department of Social Services program is an example of the project's mammoth proportions. The department must distribute 440,000 pounds of dairy products, flour and other food today and tomorrow at 23 distribution sites around the county. The products are worth about $468,000, according to Louis Halter, director of the county's emergency shelter unit and coordinator of the project in Prince George's.

Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties are running similar programs this week, although none on the scale of Prince George's. About $4.2 million worth of food is being given away in Maryland, according to a state official.

Prince George's residents who meet strict eligibility requirements will be able to pick up about 44 pounds of foodstuffs per family between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Those whose last name begins with A through L are scheduled to pick up their allotment today; those with names beginning in M through Z are scheduled for tomorrow.

Each family allotment includes 13 pounds of cheese, 6 pounds of butter, 10 pounds of cornmeal and 5 pounds each of flour, rice and dry milk.

Despite the fact that a lot of food is being given away, there will still be enough food for only about one-fourth of the Prince George's residents who need it, according to Margaret Armstrong, a volunteer who is helping to organize the project at the social services department. The department estimates 40,000 county residents are eligible for the free food.

There was a flurry of activity yesterday around the county as refrigerated trucks, lent without charge by Safeway and Giant Food, dropped off box after box of food at various sites.

"We're kind of flying by the seat of our pants," Mildred Wood said, as she counted neatly stacked cardboard boxes of sweet-smelling butter in the sanctuary of University Christian Church in Hyattsville.

Wood, who will oversee food distribution at her church, said she has never directed this kind of project before and is praying that it all goes smoothly.

Each allotment will be handed over in two plastic bags, donated by local grocery stores, she said. Church members have volunteered to drive recipients without cars to a nearby bus stop at Prince George's Plaza.

The food giveaway is mandated by the federal jobs act passed last spring and targets the nation's unemployed as a needy population. Each state is eligible to receive surplus food items donated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A USDA spokesman said the surplus food products, which could be sold to grocery distributors, are purchased instead through the USDA's price support program.

Before the jobs bill was passed, USDA stockpiled the food--especially dairy products--and periodically gave it away to schools or charitable organizations.

In Maryland, most of the food has been shipped to Baltimore and distributed to the counties through the Department of Education. The education department has managed past distribution of cheese and butter.

Food distributors at the education department have been working overtime in recent weeks to make sure that the food is passed out to the counties before federal funding expires Sept. 30.

Dwight Ricker, food distribution specialist at the education department, said yesterday that he expects all Maryland counties to complete their giveaways in the next 10 days.

It took some time to get the deliveries to Baltimore warehouses, he said. "We couldn't do this in hot weather," he said, adding that once butter and cheese are taken out of refrigerated storage, it can be kept at distribution sites only for two days.

People seeking more information about the food giveaway should call their county government information specialists.