Washington area consumer prices rose 0.3 percent during February and March while prices nationally were falling--part of the difference apparently attributable to a more rapid increase in food prices in the Washington area.

The rate of increase represented a substantial slowdown from the 0.9 percent rate of increase in the two months before, but increases in the cost of apparel and upkeep and the cost of food and beverages offset downturns in other costs. It was still the lowest percentage increase in the area in more than a year.

Nationally, prices fell 0.3 percent, with the loss led by cuts in the prices of energy, housing and food.

In the Washington area, apparel and upkeep costs rose 5.3 percent from January to March after a four-month decline. The price of women's clothing rose more than 12 percent, reflecting the end of widespread sales that had kept costs down and the introduction of spring wear, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The other big increase was in the price of food, with grocery prices rising 1.6 percent compared with a decrease of 0.3 percent in food prices nationally. The jump was caused by sharp increases in the prices of citrus fruits, especially oranges. Winter's lingering bad weather curtailed supplies and drove prices up.

The cost of restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages also rose.

D.C.-area prices fell 1.9 percent for transportation items, including big declines in the cost of tires, motor fuels and airline fares. During January, February and March, airlines cut fares sharply in the face of declining traffic. Prices fell--but by much less--for new cars, and automobile financing charges fell too.

Metropolitan housing costs were down 0.1 percent. Higher costs of natural gas and home furnishings offset declines in the costs of buying and financing a house and continuing declines in the cost of fuel oil.