For her senior project last year, Ashland High School student Sara Garbutt volunteered at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank and coordinated a food drive.

Recently, however, she's been to the food bank to fill up her own refrigerator, as rising food prices have made it harder and harder to scrape by on her $400 to $500 monthly income.

She left her parents' home two years ago, she said, and now makes about $8 an hour cleaning houses when she's not at school. On her last visit to the food bank, she and her boyfriend stocked up on basics such as bread, milk, peanut butter and some SpaghettiO's &

not their first preference, Garbutt laughed, but the bags of food would save nearly $70 and last at least a few weeks, she said.

The food bank has seen an increase in clients of 30 to 45 percent each month in 2008 compared with the same month in 2007. In April 2007, they served 463 adults, versus 669 in 2008.

Only 9 percent of their clients are homeless, while the rest simply don't have enough money for food after paying their other bills, Manager Brad Woodring said.

"People that were on the edge just barely making it, it's getting tougher when they have to decide between their rent and buying gas and buying food," he said. "I really don't see any end in sight. As long as food prices and gas prices keep going up, demand for our services are going to keep going up."

Donations to Ashland's food bank fortunately have held steady, Woodring said, and they have been able to stretch their funds with grants and bulk purchases.

Nationally, the Consumer Price Index for all food items rose 8.1 percent from June 2007 to June 2008, according to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in mid-June. A carton of eggs costs 23.2 percent more than it did a year ago, and fresh vegetable prices rose 6.1 percent from May to June 2008.

The rising cost of food is affecting all levels of the human food chain across the country and here in Ashland, from food banks on up to gourmet restaurants. And although prices don't seem to be headed back down any time soon, people are finding creative ways to cope.

Dining out

At the high end of the market, Chateaulin restaurant co-owner and chef David Taub said he's feeling the crunch as well.

"I certainly noticed the food costs," he said. "It's just crazy, the increases."

Although prices have been going up for years, the jumps have been more extreme this year, made worse by fuel prices and the weakening dollar, he said.

In response to higher gas prices, suppliers have tacked on fuel surcharges up to $10 for each delivery to the restaurant, adding about $100 in expenses each week. And the declining dollar has made affordable European wine and cheese imports even harder to find.

"I am raising prices," he said, with an average increase of — to 4 percent on an entree. "I don't think it's enough to really set off the increases because we're in a price-sensitive business, but you can only raise them so much."

Taub said higher gas prices might keep diners away, but so far business hasn't been bad. To keep from passing all of his costs on to customers, he has focused on increasing efficiency, reducing waste and offering lighter, less expensive meals.

"We are trying to allow people to come for that ambience and still stay in their budget," he said.

Ambience has been key to keeping tourists flowing into Ashland's restaurants, said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

"You still want to feel special, except you're going to spend a little bit less," she said.

Instead of a bottle of wine, diners might choose a few glasses, for example, or they may opt for a cheaper entr&

233;e, she said.

Crissy Barnett, who owns The Peerless Restaurant, noticed that trend in October and revised her menu to match her customers' smaller dining budgets.

Instead of a menu heavy on entr&

233;es, diners can choose from 16 different appetizers, a change that has decreased her food costs and shortened the average dining time. She cut into her dining room to expand the bar space, which has also attracted more people, she said.

"The beauty of the menu is that it's very welcoming to people who just want to come in and have a small plate and a quick glass of wine," she said. "There are people who do dine, but instead of ordering two entr&

233;es, they'll order a number of small plates. It's much more flexible for the diner, and you don't need reservations."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .