THE AGRICULTURE Department is consider ing including high-sugar cereals and chocolate milk in a nutrition program for undernourished pregnant women and infants. The cereal companies and chocolate manufacturers, which have been pressing the Agriculture Department on this point for years, argue that there is no proof that pre- sweetened cereals and chocolate drinks cause kids to get cavities--which is true if only because Americans eat so much sugar that it's impossible to pinpoint a single cause. Since everyone needs some calories, why shouldn't these products be included among the eligible foods that the WIC (women's, infants and children) program dispenses?

The answer is that dispensing "empty calories" is simply not consistent with WIC's limited but very important purpose. WIC, unlike food stamps, is not a general income maintenance program that attempts to make sure everyone has at least the chance to buy a minimally adequate diet--whether they use that chance wisely or not. WIC is a small program limited to people for whom nutritional deficiency can have severe and lasting consequences. It is operated through health clinics where physicians screen low-income women who are pregnant or breast-feeding to determine whether they or their children have nutritional deficiencies.

When deficiencies are found, the mother is given either a special food package or, more often, a book of vouchers that can be redeemed at stores for a prescribed list of highly nutritious but inexpensive foods. These might include baby foods high in iron for a child with anemia, or vegetable proteins for a child who can't digest regular milk. Mothers are also given helpful information about buying and preparing nutritious food and teaching children good eating habits. Studies show that the program works for its clientele--infant mortality rates decline and children are born healthier.

The American diet is deficient in many respects-- but a shortage of calories is not one of them. If parents feel their children need to have chocolate in their milk or extra sugar on their cereals--or other sugar add- ons--the free enterprise system will be glad to provide them and, for the poor, food stamps will pay for them. But none of these foods has any place in a special nutrition program. Administration officials have already shown sufficient sensitivity on this point to delay issuing the new rules. Perhaps they will have the good sense to shelve them permanently.