On a typical day at home last week, Leon Anthony Porter of Northwest Washington had a bowl of oatmeal with water for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a portion of the big pot of stew and neck bones shared by his household of 15 for dinner.

"As far as meat goes, and milk, we just don't have it," said his mother, Juanita McFadden. She receives $348 in public assistance and $140 in food stamps each month for herself and her three children. But, McFadden said, "Some days we don't have anything."

On the same day that Leon dined on neck bones, a few blocks away, Myrene Martin gave her 6-year-old twins Ebony and Electa some sugar-coated cereal for breakfast and said a prayer for lunch and dinner.

That afternoon, her sister-in-law, Ernestine Jackson, answered the prayer -- at the nearby super-market, where Jackson said later, she "politely heisted a couple pounds of hamburger and a box of Hamberger Helper" for the family dinner.

It was not the first time a meal had come that way, and it was not something to hide. "I have had to steal food," Martin said as she sat hugging herself against the chill in a dim, drafty house on 13th Street NW, recounting her day-to-day struggle for food.

McFadden's and Martin's children, thought not suffering from malnutrition, are by numerous accounts among many in Washington whose meals are irregular and often of questionable nutritional quality. Much of their families' time and energy are spent in an endless search for food.

No statistics exist regarding the number of such people in Washington, and there is no evidence that the severe malnutrition that produces swollen stomaches, wasted limbs and starvation in poorer nations exists in the District or in this country.

But the experiences of McFadden's and Martin's families -- and numerous others known to social service, public health and charity workers here -- indicate that hunger is a persistent fact of life for many people in the nation's capital. This was borne out in two weeks of interviews and research by a reporter.

There are numerous local and federal programs operating in Washington to help feed those short of funds or short of food. But the problem of food is interwoven with the other effects of poverty in ways that often deter full use of assistance that is available, as the McFadden household illustrates.

On the day that Leon Porter, 9, had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, Gregory McFadden, 11, of the same household had hamburger, french fries, a salad, milk and juice in the free lunch program at Garrison Elementary School. Porter did not go to school that day.

Both boys frequently eat modest breakfasts at home because they get up too late to eat a free nutritious breakfast at school. The school meals that could enhance their diets are useless because the youths often don't go to school. Of the 45,000 children eligible for free school breakfasts, for example, only 15,000 eat them regularly, according to school officials.

"I'm supposed to be in the sixth [grade] but I'm behind. I missed three months this year, because we didn't have no clothes to wear," Gregory said.

He said the clothes they had could not be washed because the family was without electricity and gas for part of the winter.

Patsy McFadden said she is troubled by the absences because the children need the meals and the education. But, she said, "Gregory often comes in and says the teacher tries to embarrass him. [She] makes a remark [about his clothes] and they [his classmates] all laugh. Even if he's in school he can't learn anything that way."

Food is just one of the many necessities that many of Washington's poor find vying for their limited resources in inflationary times.

"The adults may be battling the bureaucracy for decent housing . . . or sharing a kitchen and have to wait their turns -- all sorts of practical things," said medical anthropologist Frances Davidson, a professor at Georgetown University medical school.

"Sometimes the money is not managed properly in terms of food and nutrition needs," she said. But the reasons for it have a lot to do with the problems of poor poeple."

Patsy McFadden, for instance, works part time at night cleaning offices in a building across the park from the White House.

In addition to the $64 a week take home pay from her job, she gets $358 in public assistance and $134 in food stamp allotments for herself and three dependent children. But that food is shared by the entire 12-person household, she said, some of whom have independent incomes and some of whom do not. She gets no help from her husband, she said.

Most of her $748 a month income goes for food, "and that's not for costly food. Beans and potatoes are expensive, too," she said. She pays only $60 a month rent, but she said her utility bills are high. This month she used most of her welfare payment to pay a $191.46 heating bill that included overdue charges from last winter, she said.

There are some resulting scars, parents and social workers said. "Psychologically, it's just a terrible burden to bear," Davidson said.

"Talking about it is nothing but rehashing the heartache," Patsy McFadden said.

Above all, parents and social workers said, hunger is kept at bay by remarkably resourceful -- although not always legal -- survival techniques.

"I talk to a number of people who every day spend most of their time getting food," said the Rev. Tom Nees, director of the Community of Hope, which operates an emergency food center at 14th and Belmont streets NW.

"There is a kind of network of hustling, begging and borrowing that is going on," Nees said, "a system of exchange of money and favors services for foods."

"There are many folks who get food stamps and are selling them. Rent is the number one priority; they'll do what they have to to keep that roof over their heads," Nees said.

"It's true that some people complicate their problems by drugs and alcohol, but many of them just don't 'have,'" Nees said. "They used to run out near the end of the month; now it's more like the middle of the month."

The USDA recommended minimum dietary needs for a young child include at least four four-ounce servings of fruits and vegetables, including one high in Vitamin C (citrus, melon or strawberries) and one high in Vitamin A (dark green or yellow vegetables); four or more half-cup servings of bread or cereal; two to three 8-ounce cups of milk if under nine years old, three if under 12 years old and four if over 12, and two 2- to 3-ounce servings of meat, poultry, fish or dried beans or nuts.

No conclusive data exist regarding the effects of a diet lacking these nutrients, public health experts said.

In the McFadden household, the children frequently have been ill. Leon's 2-year-old brother was hospitalized last winter with pneumonia. Absenteeism and truancy create a major nutritional problem for children in the McFadden household and many others in Washington.

"Children really depend on those meals," said Mary Thompson, principal of Gage-Eckington Elementary School in LeDroit Park, who spent more than a year study absenteeism in District schools. "It makes me wonder what they would do if they didn't have those programs. After a holiday and on Mondays, they really come in looking for those meals."

Betty Nangoni, chief of attendance for the D.C. public schools, said records show that Leon and other children in the family have been chronically absent. This school year, she said, he enrolled late, Oct. 14, after some pressure from school officials. He was traunt 62 school days between Oct. 14 and April 17.

Many of the missed days were the result of lack of clothing or illness, his mother and grandmother said.

By his own account, Leon sometimes misses the free breakfast at Garrison Elementary School, three blocks from his home, because he doesn't get up early enough. "Then I just wait until 12 o'clock" to eat, he said.

Ebony and Electa Martin also miss a lot of school because of ear infections, stomach problems, and other illnesses, their mother said. And when they're out of school, "I know they be hungry, but there's nothing I can do," she said.

Leon is small for his 9 years, with fatigue lines under his eyes and a certain slowness of movement and speech. He says he spends most of his waking time in front of the television set. Leon can recite the evening sitcom schedule with ease.

He often eats sitting in front of the TV. Even when there is food in the house, there is no dining table on which to serve it, Leon's grandmother said.

The D.C. schools serve 41,000 free and 4,000 reduced-price lunches each day. About 101,000 people, half of them children, get monthly food stamps worth about $4.3 million. The D.C. Department of Human Services each month offers supplemental food packages of canned and dried goods worth $167,000 wholesale to 10,563 people in families with children under the age 6.

Still, "I know there are hungry people in this city," declared Richard Stack, director of the Capital Area Community Food Bank, a year-old food clearinghouse that distributes an additional 80,000 pounds a month of overstocked and damaged goods collected from stores and given to agencies that donate it to needy families. Leon's oatmeal came from one such package.

The emergency packages are intended as supplemental and include staples such as macaroni and cheese, canned soups and bread. But there are "people who make it a way of life, some familes who come back again and again," for the emergency food at Far East Community Center, 5929 East Capitol St. SE, Morris said.

"There are a lot of services and there's a heck of a lot of resources in this city. There's no reason for [hunger]," said Barbara Brannan, a city government nutritionist.Some resources go unused, however.

About 3,500 people eligible for supplemental food packages do not collect them, according to Doris Thornton, chief of the city's program. They often have no way of transport the 100- to 180-pound packages of canned fruits and meats, dried milk, infant formula and other products, she said.

Even with such supplements, however, eating is a constant struggle for many, and often involves a hopeless cycle of borrowing.

Martin said a monthly welfare allotment of $284 for herself and twins Ebony and Electa usually diminishes to "$5 or $10 after I give my mother money for rent and pay back the people I've borrowed from.

"It really hurts you, because then you have to start borrowing all over again. And now the people that would lend money say things are getting tight for them."

Her sister-in-law Ernestine Jackson says that even when stretched to its maximum, the $115 of food stamps she gets for herself and a 13-year-old daughter -- the equivalent of about $2 a day per person -- is insufficient. Both women go frequently to the emergency food center at Bread for the City at 1305 14th St. NW. They are allowed only one package a month, and sometimes the center has no food.

"And when I can't borrow, we just do without. They [the children] usually eat [Nissen's] Oodles of Noodles [bleached, enriched, white-flour noodles flavored with mostly artificial seasonings], because that's the cheapest thing there is, three packs for $1," Jackson said. "Mainly I've did without because I try not to steal. But if I get the chance. . . ."

Malnutrition is not recognized as a serious problem among poor people in this country, said Dr. Milton Nichaman, director of nutrition for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Out of 50,000 children examined in publicly supported clinics in 20 states, 5 percent were found below the 5th percentile on weight-for-height scales, he said. "That means that 95 percent of poor kids are just like the national population profile."

Ann Wilkshire, chief of nutrition for public health clinics in Northeast and Northwest, said health workers "don't see overt malnutrition." But she said, "We do see cases where they [children] are undernourished," Wilkshire said.

"Since we've had [increased] inflation, we do see a difference in the nutrition histories," the eating patterns of children treated in the clinics, she said. "And we know people have a struggle."