It was hard for Quinton Wiggins to apply for food stamps.

Not hard, as it is for some, to physically get to the certification office. Nor hard, as it is for many, to come up with the few dollars required to purchase the food stamps.

It was hard for Wiggins, who has worked hard all his life and earned more than $20,000 some years, to admit that he needed help.

"I had to be hit on the head to even go apply," said Wiggins, a silver-haired former regional manager for a sewing machine company.

Some people never apply at all. Only about 21 per cent of Virginia residents estimated eligible to receive the food aid actually received stamps in 1974, according to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Nationally, only about half of those estimated to be eligible for food stamps receive them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even of those who apply and are certified, not everyone carries through to buy and use the stamps. In November, 1976, about 67 per cent of the households certified eligible in Alexandria used them, according to the Virginia Department of Welfare. About 69 per cent of those certified in Fairfax did. And, according to an Arlington food stamp clerk, about 52 per cent of those eligible and certified in that county bought the stamps in January.

"It's usually because they can't get the purchase price together or, to them, the amount they get free is not a big enough benefit," said Shirley Cragg, food stamp field supervisor for the Virginia department of welfare. Most users pay a percentage of their income to participate. For instance, a family of four might buy $162 worth of stamps a month for $71 - a 56 per cent discount.

Although the purchase price required is generally relatively low, even a sum as small as $18 can be too much for a person in desperate financial straits, according to officials who work with food stamp recipients. The Fairfax Community Ministry, like other similar groups in the area, makes grants in some of those cases, said the Rev. Gerald Hopkins.

"We had an elderly woman on a fixed income, whose apartment rent went up so that it took her whole monthly income," he said, citing an example of someone who couldn't afford the purchase price. "She had absolutely nothing with which to buy stamps when she paid her rent," he said.

The ministry was able to give her a $30 grant a help her that month while the county helped to find her a cheaper place to live, he said. The grants are limited to $30 because more money than that would be counted as income and raise the amount of money a recipient might have to pay or otherwise effect a recipient's eligibility.

The community ministry in Fairfax has made grants to about 150 persons in about seven months, said Hopkins. However, the group has run out of funds for the grants and is uncertain whether it will be able to help in the future.

Another difficulty, said Hopkins, is simply the process. "With all the papers to fill out and all the hassle, by the time some people finish the first interview, they are almost to the point of saying, 'Forget about it,'" he said.

The application, four sheets of small type set on a green background, requires the applicant to code his employment status and citizenship, plow through about 100 items and answer questions such as listing for all working members of the family sources of income and deductions for Social Security, taxes, union dues and retirement. Information must be verified by bank statements, check stubs and other sources, all of which an applicant must produce.

Hopkins and others said that steps had been taken in Fairfax and other Northern Virginia areas to make food stamps more easily accessible. Fairfax has 13 sales outlets for stamps, mainly in banks, three full-time certification offices and two satellite office in Herndon and Reston, open one day a week.

Alexandria has six stamp issuance offices and four certification centers. Arlington has nine sales places and three certification centers.

"We feel like everyone knows about the program," said Jean Farnworth, eligibility supervisor in Fairfax.

Pride and people's reluctance, because of that pride, to use the program is harder to measure than some of the other reasons the program may be underutilized. But it is a significant factor, said Hopkins.

"People that have been working and such are just very reluctant until the very last resort to go in and say, 'I need that,'" said Hopkins. "It's a great deal of pride that people have."

Wiggins felt that way, he said. He left his job with the sewing machine company in 1971, moving from Falls Church to South Carolina. There, with his savings, he opened a mobile home park in Columbia. But the park was in an area served only by wells and septic tanks. The health officials closed it down, he lost everything in foreclosure and returned to Virginia with his troubles weighing him down like a sack of bricks.

Finding a job has been hard for him. "Hell, let's face it. I'm 54, and people are skeptical," he said. A job is out of the question for his wife, who has two artificial hips, he said. Wiggins didn't want to apply for food stamps, but his wife, Mary Jane, prevailed.

"We needed 'em. We needed 'em, brother," she said. "When you get hungry, you do it."

They have been using them now for almost a year, and Wiggins looks forward to a time when they won't need them. He works as a salesman and estimator for a moving company on a straight commission basis, but after a training period earned only about $3,700 last year, he said. What is involved is driving around Virginia to estimate the cost of moves. (He covers only the Virginia area, where the Maryland-based company does little business.)

After he spends his gas money and time for the estimate, the company he works for may or may not be given the job. If it is, he makes money. Otherwise, he is out the money for the gas.

He has no pension. He took the money he had contributed to the sewing machine company pension fund and used it to open the mobile home park.

"In the moving business, it takes a lot of contacts, especially national accounts," said Wiggins, who was in the sales business for 25 years before he tried entrepreneurship. Most of the big accounts, with the national companies whose employees make frequent moves, are already covered, he said.

"I might nurse that business . . ." he said, but he looked discouraged.

"A lot of people start a second career, but it's going to be a third one for me," he said. "I've just got to find the right corner, the right kind of niche. Moving is just not my bread and butter."

When he was young, he said, he worked hard and long hours. It wasn't hard for him, although it may have been for his wife, he said. "I don't have the time now. I don't have the spunk to drive that hard."

"If one great big old spark would come in where he knew we could make the rent, he'd be fine," said Mrs. Wiggins. "He's holding on to this job here, because at 54 you can't find another."

"This day in life you need a spark," she said.