Carolyn Castle would steel herself with the thought that she had no other choice as she made monthly rounds in her gold Chevelle, asking friends, neighbors and Catholic nuns for money.

Her three children had been eating nothing but "beans and 'taters, 'taters and beans," and chicken once a month, she said. Her landlord was up in arms, and the electric company was sending disconnection notices.

When she asked the county social worker about public assistance, he offhandedly suggested that she could get aid if she left her husband -- advice she rejected.

So, her pride sinking as low as the car's fuel gauge, Castle would hit the narrow, winding roads in this tiny southwest Virginia town. Afraid of being turned down, she would often "get right up to their house and drive by." If she noticed signs of company, "I'd just park somewhere and give them time to leave and come back," she said.

In a state that has traditionally put a low priority on public assistance for the poor, the situation Castle faced is hardly unique. Although Castle's family ultimately received aid, thousands of families are excluded from welfare in Virginia by restrictions they would not face in many states. And those who are eligible for the state's main welfare program -- Aid to Dependent Children -- are given far less than the state says is necessary to get by. "Woefully inadequate" is how Jim Payne, secretary of the state Board of Social Services, describes the state's payments.

"What you're bucking up against in Virginia is . . . a basically antiwelfare policy," said state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who chairs the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services. "I think most people regard these programs as taking money from people who have worked by the sweat of their brow and giving it to people who are shiftless and lazy."

State officials say Gov. Charles S. Robb may ask for an increase in the state's ADC payments, which rank 34th in the country. Other recommendations may result from the findings of a legislative commission that recently held statewide hearings on hunger. Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax) expects at least one proposal in the legislature to liberalize the restrictions that she calls "just plain not fair."

But in a legislature where one state official says the spectrum runs from "moderate conservative to hyperconservative," the prospects for major changes appear dim.

Del. Franklin M. Slayton (D-Halifax) has a somewhat typical response to criticism of the state's welfare program: "We may not be as liberal as other states, but I don't think we're so strict people are suffering or going hungry. In these programs you never give enough."

To social welfare advocates, what Virginia is giving is not even close to enough, especially given the cutbacks in federal programs for the poor. "This is a time of great need," said Debbie Oswalt, consultant to a legislative subcommittee set up to study the problem of hunger. "The private sector is doing a lot; the state is not doing anything.

"We have some money. We have the 13th highest per-capita income in the country. It's ironic that we're not doing more."

In the past 10 years, Virginia's ADC payments have progressively fallen behind the cost of living. Three increases have boosted payments by 21 percent since 1974, while the consumer price index has shot up 110 percent.

A study done by a consulting firm for the General Assembly and the state Department of Social Services last week called for increasing the funding of the ADC program by about 30 percent and making sweeping revisions to update standards of need. 'I Need Something To Eat'

At this point, state checks, together with food stamps from the federal government, cover at most 75 percent of the estimated cost of living for the vast majority of recipients, according to another study. State studies in 1980 and 1983 reached similar findings.

With the level of aid she receives, Annette Stith, a 23-year-old mother of three children, said she can make it through the first three weeks of the month. By the fourth week, she must call her mother on a neighbor's phone and tell her, "I need something to eat."

Stith lives on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a thin, flat peninsula of vegetable fields and clam-processing plants comprising two of the state's poorest counties, and her situation is in many ways typical of the hundreds of ADC families there.

She said the most she can afford for rent is $40 a month. On the shore, that buys housing that Fay Lohr, executive director of a local nonprofit community group, describes as "frightening."

Stith's brown tar-papered house, like those of most of her neighbors, lacks running water and indoor plumbing and puts up a poor defense against the elements. She closes off one of her four rooms because cold air pours in through holes in the ceiling.

Her outhouse is the standard reeking, rickety structure. Stith's family uses a small indoor pot instead; the children of another ADC family use the side porch because snakes have overrun their privy.

Stith has no car, no phone and a stove that came from a local dump. But high utility costs and the expense of getting around in this isolated region eat up much of her monthly budget. Another big chunk is life insurance, something many ADC parents view as a necessity if they want to be assured a burial.

By the middle of the fourth week of November, Stith was in her usual tough spot. For four days, she and her children, ages 6, 4 and 1, had subsisted on sandwiches. Her food stamps of $236 and ADC check of $273 had run out two weeks earlier. All she had left were the pennies her 6-year-old had earned collecting aluminum cans. "I'm about to give up," she said.

Lohr and Susan Arslanian, who works with Lohr at the Eastern Shore Community Development Group, see a fairly steady flow of ADC families in similar circumstances. Since June, 20 have come to the program's offices in Onancock to ask for food on an emergency basis.

By the end of the month, said one mother of five who received food, "I'm down to a can of peas, two or three eggs, catsup, mustard, mayonnaise and peanut butter and jelly.

"Sometimes, I'll tell you the truth, I just don't eat," she said. "I'll keep it for them. I'll have two slices of bread and get myself a cup of coffee before I go to bed."

Others find another way out. When she hears a horn beep in the morning, one ADC mother grabs an old pair of tennis shoes and runs out to the bumpy dirt road that runs alongside her door. The waiting truck will take her to a field where she can pick peas or beans for $2.50 an hour. She makes no excuses about not reporting the income. Her children have "one pair of sneakers apiece," she said. "I would rather for them to have boots."

If ADC parents fight a losing battle against expenses in Virginia, thousands of others find themselves several steps farther down the ladder because of Virginia's strict rules on who can qualify for ADC.

Like 24 other states, Virginia excludes most two-parent families unless one is disabled. The District and Maryland allow two-parent families to receive ADC if one spouse is unemployed. Virginia limits to $600 a family's savings and other resources, $400 less than the allowable amount in 44 states and the District. And unlike many states, Virginia rules out families who own more than what legal aid attorneys say generally amounts to about an acre.

One 30-year-old mother in Norton, a small city in a mountainous corner of southwestern Virginia, blamed the state's rule against providing ADC to two-parent families in part for driving away the father of her four children, who range in age from 1 1/2 to 12.

After he lost his construction job and utility bills mounted to hundreds of dollars, she said, the utility companies cut off water and electricity to the cramped trailer. Short-Term Pilot Program

In half of the states, the family could have applied for ADC under the "unemployed parent" program. Virginia has begun a short-term $1.7 million pilot program for such families in 15 counties and cities, but Norton is not one of them.

For months, the Norton mother said, she cooked on a Coleman stove, tried to keep food cold with packaged ice, and warded off the chill as best as possible with borrowed kerosene heaters. When the children's father finally suggested leaving her so she could receive ADC, she did not argue.

"When you have bills facing you and you don't see any way of paying them, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of choice," she said.

Carolyn Castle, 29, the Dungannon woman who relies on friends to help her with food at the end of the month, still gets angry about the day a county social worker suggested that she and her husband split up for her to get aid. "I felt like picking up anything I could get my hands on and knocking him out," she said. "I looked at him and said, 'I'm not running my husband out. My children need their daddy.' "

Castle's husband Roy, 34, worked at the local sawmill, but said he had to give up manual labor in June 1983 because of racking back pains and other physical problems. With a second-grade education, he has been at a loss about what other kind of job he could find.

During the year it took a legal aid attorney to convince the state that the Castles qualified for ADC under a provision for the disabled, Carolyn Castle said, the family of five "got down about as low as we could go."

Their sole income was $301 a month in food stamps that did not cover meals, according to Castle. At dinner she said she would urge her three children, who range in age from 7 to 11, to "wait for a while if I saw there wasn't enough for the next meal." She would end the day feeling weak, her stomach growling.

"When I'd go to bed, it was hard to face the next day coming up because I knew it would be the same," she said. "There were times I wanted to sit down and just quit. I didn't think it would ever stop."

For Kim and Jimmy Mann, who live with their 4-year-old son in Bristol near the Tennessee border, one of the biggest hardships of not qualifying for ADC is missing out on the Medicaid benefits automatically provided to ADC recipients.

Since Jimmy, a mobile home mechanic, was injured on the job in 1982 and again in a car crash 13 months later, Kim said that "life has been unbelievable." They've run up more than $10,000 in hospital bills she said they cannot pay. They've sold furniture, tools, jewelry, a stereo and a television to get cash for necessities. They have even sold some of their clothes, Kim said, "for money to go to the laundry."

The family receives $208 a month in food stamps, but still, Kim said, "We've gone hungry."

"We've been down to the point where she and I would just eat a piece of toast so we'll have something for Chad for dinner," her husband added.

For Kim, the question from month to month is the same. "How much longer can we go on like this?"

Paris Lell's family ran into a different restriction after he was injured in a coal mining accident. Their problem, as a state social worker explained, was that they owned too much land.

Virginia counts land adjacent to a house as part of the family's general resources, except the acreage used for a garden, outhouse or other structures "essential to the dwelling." The regulation is more specific than in Maryland or the District. In Maryland, for example, the rules state only that a family may own a house and the lot on which it sits. House Value Not Counted

The perversity of the Virginia rule, according to state Del. Ford Quillen (D-Scott), is that while the land counts, the value of the house itself does not. Thus a family with a $100,000 home in Northern Virginia could conceivably qualify for ADC, while families with less than $2,400 worth of property have been excluded.

It is not certain that other states carry such a restriction, but of 14 states surveyed by the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, none had a rule similar to Virginia's. Sherry Leiwant, an attorney for the center, said she knows of no state with a similar restriction.

Martin Wegbreit, a legal aid attorney in southwest Virginia, says the rule falls most heavily on rural families, who frequently own more than an acre, which is of little value except to the family. The land, according to Wegbreit, is often impossible to sell without the house because it is too rocky or hilly and lacks access except by way of the house.

Under the current state rules, unless a family can sell the excess land within six months of receiving the first welfare check, the family is dropped from the program and must pay back the money.

The rules were a little looser when the Lells sought welfare: Families who could prove the land was unsellable could still qualify.

But that made little difference to the Scott County couple. They did not want to sell the 32 hilly acres surrounding their house because they had been paying for it through a government-financed loan for 10 years and needed welfare only until Lell's worker's compensation benefits came through.

Paris Lell, 54, remembers vividly the loans from relatives and the gifts of food from charities and neighbors that helped carry his family through the 10-month period before June 1982, when the family's income was $278 a month in food stamps.

He is as mystified by the rule now as he was then. "I hate to see anybody give up something they've worked all their lives for, just to get a little help," he said.

In a different way, the property rule affects elderly people such as Blanch Tipton, 78, who lives down the road from the Lells. An acre of steep hillside behind her house excludes her from the Medicaid program and leaves her wondering if she will be turned away if she needs hospital care. "It don't make me mad, but it just hurts my feelings," said Tipton, who calls visitors "honey" and bestows crocheted potholders on them. "I can't understand it."

Del. McDiarmid said proposals to change such rules and to boost the ADC payments "come up and come up and come up" in the legislature.

In its upcoming session, the legislature is expected to follow its usual cautious approach. Still, McDiarmid, Slayton and some other lawmakers express some hope for liberalizing the contiguous-property rule. The Social Services Department estimates it would cost the ADC and Medicaid programs $4.6 million a year to exempt all property adjacent to applicants' homes.

Del. Richard M. Bagley (D-Hampton), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he also senses a growing sentiment among legislators that "perhaps we have been too stringent" on ADC checks.

Joseph L. Fisher, secretary of human resources, said Robb is considering asking the legislature to devote part of the state's budget surplus, expected to be nearly $160 million, to boosting ADC payments. However, many legislators expect most of the surplus to be used on the prison system.

A subcommittee on hunger, chaired by state Sen. Robert C. Scott (D-Newport News), is considering other possible ways to extend assistance for the poor, including exempting federally financed food stamps from the state's 4 percent sales tax on food. That would cost the state and localities a total of about $8 million a year.

Payne, of the Board of Social Services, said he believes the state will eventually "respond compassionately," even if "sometimes we are slow getting the picture."

But others are less optimistic. "Welfare has never been a priority in Virginia," said Scott.