At the household of Gloria Dent, just four blocks from the Capitol, her 18-year-old daughter Debra watches sadly as her mother placed bowls of liver, gravy and biscuits -- all they can afford this day -- on the table.

Her brothers and cousin bow their heads and close their eyes as Debra recites the traditional prayer, thanking, God for the food.

But "inside," she said, "I'm thinking, 'Not this again.' Sometimes I think about baked chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, fresh greens and cornbread that we used to have when my mother was working."

A fire that destroyed their home and her mother's subsequent illness forced the family to turn to public assistance and food stamps. And then they learned, as many low-income families already have, that those benefits provide barely enough to survive.

As prices have soared, welfare families, elderly people on fixed incomes and the working poor are finding that inflation forces cruel choices between housing and heating, medical care and food. For some, the choice is no longer what kind of meat to eat, but whether meat can be purchased at all. The $2 that could buy a dozen eggs, two loaves of bread and eight ears of corn two years, now will only buy a dozen eggs and three loaves of bread.

But increased benefits are not in sight. A budget-minded Congress recently passed legislation cutting back food-stamp benefits by delaying scheduled cost-of-living increases and tightening eligibility requirements to eliminate 800,000 people across the country from the program. Under the new rules, for instance, a family of four can earn no more than $7,450 (the level had been set to go to $8,200 in July).

Approximately 170,000 persons in the metropolitan area receive food stamps, which can be used only for food not for alcoholic beverages, or tobacco, pet food or cleaning supplies. The stamps are presented to grocery stores as cash, and cannot be cashed without a purchase.

The stamp alowance per family is based on a minimum nutrition plan devised by the federal government with a computer that allows each family member 36 cents per meal. USDA readily admits that most families cannot live on that amount and still get the recommended daily allowances of essential vitamins and nutrients.

"It doesn't give a family a lot to work with," Barbara Wallace, a USDA spokesman, said of the program. "It was expected that people would supplement the program with other benefits, other income.

"But with inflation, we've found that people are having to spend their money on energy, housing and other things just to keep going," she said. "They rely on food stamps to get their food."

Alberta Jones, a mother of four on food stamps, sits by the bedroom window in her Northwest Washington home and daydreams of the elaborate meals she would like to feed her children. But they rarely get fresh vegetables or fruit, and meatless dinners come twice a week.

"One time I could only give my children neckbones and boiled potatoes," Jones said. "There are times when I have to apologize to the kids and say, 'I' m sorry, this is all we have.'"

"We can't afford to have what we like to eat," said Jones, who lives in the Shaw neighborhood, two blocks from a new Giant store and the renovated O Street market. "You get tired of eating beans."

In Northeast Washington, Russell Shephard, a diabetic, and his wife Viola, a cancer victim, both retired blue-collar workers, often have to postpone visits to their doctors to pay utility bills and buy food.

Inflation ravages their fixed income. Personal savings don't exist. And they get only $13 a month in food stamps. Russell Shephard, now 75, said, "I never expected to live this long. Sometimes I have to make a choice between going to the doctor and eating.

Dent and Jones said they also put off paying bills to be able to feed their families. Jones, for example, receives a monthly food stamp allotment of $149 for five people. She spends that much in two weeks. After paying the rent and other bills, she usually has $60 left for the last two weeks of the month. So she borrows money to be able to meet her $70-a-week food budget until of the month. She pays off the debt and the cycle starts all over.

Dent, who used to earn $800 a month as a social worker, had to give up her job, on doctor's orders, because of hypertension. She now gets $209 a month in food stamps. "Where I once spent $125 to $150 a week to feed a total of seven, I now have only $50 a week," she said. She gets food stamps for a family of four, but also feeds two teen-age children and a niece, who don't qualify for her allotment.

In contrast to the popular notion that most food stamps households buy junk food with their stamps, USDA officials say they are generally smarter shoppers than the general public, trying to buy the same kinds of food with less money.

"I spent $15 for about a day's worth of food and all I got was a box of Salisbury steaks, a box or Rice-a-Roni, a loaf of bread, cereal, which alone costs $1.25 for store-brand cereal, and laundry detergent," Jones said. "I didn't have any money for vegetables."

Gloria Dent said, "My six kids can drink a gallon of milk in one sitting. When I shop, I have to buy things that will stretch a long way, like beans, rice and starchy things. We buy scrap meats a lot, like chicken parts rather than whole chickens. There is no room in my budget for pork chops, hams, bacon or things like that."

Menus for a recent string of dinners at Dent's home were like this:

Monday: homemade chicken noodle soup made with scrap meat, and applesauce. No vegetables.

Tuesday: spaghetti and hamburger. No vegetables.

Wednesday: chicken stew made with chicken wings, mixed vegetables and string beans. "It was tasty and filling, but that's about all you can say about it," Dent said.

Thursday: the liver, gravy and biscuits. No vegetables.

"I feel bad as a mother knowing that the kids should have vegetables and fruit. I feel bad knowing that I'm not feeding my children well. But on the other hand, it's the best I can do," she said.

"My children complain that we eat the same things all the time, beans and rice and other starchy things," Dent said. "Lunch meat has disappeared from my kitchen, as have the cookies, the fruit and vegertables in the vegetable bin. My cupboards are bare. We can't afford that kind of stuff anymore.

"I've also noticed that my children are eating out at other neighbors' homes more often now, and that bothers me a lot," she said, her eyes starting to tear. "It means that I cannot provide for them as a mother. They tell me that they ate at Sam's house because Sam's mother had fried fish.

"What can I do but not sleep at night and pray harder than ever that God will help me?" Dent said.

Community workers say there are thousands of cases each year in which families have virtually nothing to eat at some point. Head Start program officials in the District and Maryland say preschool children eligible for the program's free breakfasts and lunches eat the most food at their Monday morning breakfast -- a sign, workers say, that food is probably scarce at home over the weekend.

According to USDA undernutrition rather than poor nutrition is a common problem among poor urban children. Recent studies show that up to 15 percent are stunted in height. The poor also suffer from obesity from eating too many starches, and dental cavities.

Some medical experts also suggest that inadequate diets play a factor in the District's high infant mortality rate, as well as premature senility.

Gloria Dent, 41, a large proud woman, remembers the families who came to her for food when she was a social worker for the United Planning Organizations.

"I remember giving out cans of tomatoes or string beans," Dent said. "I knew they would not die from malnutrition, but I also knew they would not get adequate diets either."

"From my days at UPO, I know that hungry children will steal a steak from the grocery store, or put a package of shrimp under their arms and take that home and cook it, not sell it, as some people think," Dent said.

"They [hungry children] will open a carton of orange juice or anything else and drink it right in the aisles," she said.

"You know, this is supposed to be the richest country in the world, the land of plenty, but it's not.