The Agriculture Department bought $21 million worth of rice in fiscal 1985 to give to needy people, schools and charitable institutions, a fact that brings Tom Coyne little comfort.

Coyne sits in an office in Little Rock, Ark., conjuring up ways to turn the world's hungry to brown rice, and therein lies his problem with USDA. Only a tiny portion -- about half a million pounds -- of the roughly 168 million pounds USDA purchased was brown rice.

The rest was the less nutritive enriched white milled variety, which is to say brown rice with husk and bran removed and nutrition restored by adding powdered vitamins and minerals.

"I've been through this so many times," Coyne says. "Not only do we not provide our own hungry people with the most nutritious rice. We project our own standards overseas and send white milled rice to countries where the custom is to wash the rice repeatedly. They wash the vitamins and minerals off of it."

Coyne, whose business is building small brown-rice mills on farms so farmers can market their own product, argues that the government would get a triple return on its investment if it put more emphasis on brown rice.

The first return is higher nutrition, he says. The second is that brown rice is cheaper than the white milled rice on world markets. And the third is that brown rice, shipped in bulk rather than the 100-pound bags used for white rice, could be as much as $40 cheaper per ton.

So what in the world, Coyne wonders, is going on?

There is no argument that brown rice is more nutritive than the white milled type. The USDA's standard reference, "The Composition of Foods," shows brown rice to be superior in virtually every testing category. And USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which places the orders for distributed food, puts out flyers proclaiming the nutritive benefits of brown rice.

All this notwithstanding, FNS food branch chief Marvin Eskin said ruefully, brown rice just doesn't move. The reason is that schools and other users of the federal commodities don't ask for it.

"It is offered in the school lunch program and all our other programs, even on the Indian reservation, and we promote it with the flyers to encourage them. But we can't force them to take it," Eskin said. "But if a state had a $1 million entitlement to commodities and they wanted it all in brown rice, that's what they would get.

"The milled white rice has been around a long time and everyone is used to it," Eskin added. "You've got to get people to try brown rice and get them used to it before it's going to become more popular in the program."

Rice is just one of a pantry of foodstuffs that Eskin and the FNS ask USDA's Kansas City Commodity Office to seek bids on each month. Tens of thousands of tons of flour, spaghetti, oats, mozzarella cheese, peanut products and other staples are purchased each month.

About $424 million worth of such items went into the school lunch program and another $1 billion worth into USDA's Temporary Emergency Feeding Program, which began in 1982 to move surplus goods to institutions, soup kitchens and poor individuals.

The temporary program is limited to seven basic commodities, but the other feeding operation under Eskin's watch offers a constantly changing list aimed at meeting different menu preferences that show up in the states' requests to Washington for food aid.

"We respond to the state advisory councils' requests and if we can fit in a product, we try to do it," he said. "wherever it's feasible, we try to improve what we are offering.

"We eliminated canned fruits in heavy syrup, we replaced the turkey roll with a turkey roast, we've improved the french fry specifications, we're providing durum and semolina macaroni, we've cut the fat in the frozen ground beef -- and we're looking at a new type of spiral pasta that is popular in the schools."

That's all well and good, Tom Coyne might say, but if they can get Johnny to eat spiral pasta, why not brown rice?