Gov. William Donald Schaefer not long ago received messages that more than 2,500 people -- children, college students, social advocates, members of religious organizations and older Marylanders -- had written on paper plates. Hundreds of other people also sent him letters on more conventional stationery, all urging him to provide state funding for the federal Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Maryland has one of the nation's highest infant death rates. In 1987 11.7 infants died for every 1,000 births in Maryland -- that meant nearly 500 babies didn't reach their first birthday, dying from causes preventable under the WIC program. Only nine states had a worse record.

WIC, through its provision of nutritious food and health screenings to low-income mothers and children has been an effective tool in tackling high infant death rates. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently reported that nationwide WIC reduced African-American infant deaths by three to six for every 1,000 African-American participants and white infant deaths by one to three for every 1,000 white participants.

Now 46,000 mothers and children eligible for the program will be unable to participate because of limited federal funds. If Schaefer would grant $450,000 in state funds for WIC, 1,000 women and children could be helped.

The $450,000 sum is not a request for new money but rather for a transfer of state funds now spent on unhealthy babies. In FY 1990, the state spent $19 million in state Medicaid funds for pregnant women and children up to age six; this fiscal year costs could reach $25 million.

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that every WIC dollar spent on care for pregnant women on Medicaid saves two to three Medicaid dollars in the first 60 days after a child's birth. What other investment can give such a return of $900,000 to $1,350,000 on $450,000?

Targeting mothers on Medicaid for the WIC program would expand services to those at high risk who are having unhealthy babies now. It also would mean that Maryland might get additional federal dollars; the USDA mid-Atlantic office told state WIC directors that those states that fund WIC would be in a better position to receive additional federal funds because the more pregnant women and infants the program serves, the more funding the federal government makes available.

Budget problems Maryland now faces should not deter the governor from funding WIC. Earlier this year, New York, a state that has a deficit much larger than Maryland's, initially reduced its state funds for WIC. However, it later recognized its error and restored the funds and even added monies.

It is the hope of many Marylanders is that our governor will give the gift of life by funding the WIC program when he submits his budget this week. -- Darold M. Johnson is a public policy specialist with the Maryland Food Committee, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization.