Washington is once again among the most expensive American cities in which to buy groceries, according to a national survey conducted early this month by newspaper food editors. Only Anchorage, Alaska, and Boston among 17 cities had market baskets higher than Washington's.

The total of $38.99 for 35 items was 5.9 percent above the national average and $2.05 higher (5.4 percent) than a year ago.

There are indications in the survey, however, that food price inflation has been less dramatic in Washington than elsewhere during the past year. In the 1977 survey, local food prices were 8.2 percent over the national average and had jumped nearly 10 percent over 1976s.

This year Washington's price was high or tied for high in the continental United States for five items - instant coffee, canned peaches and canned pineapple, wieners and Special K cereal. It was second high, or tied for second high, for margarine, sugar, tunafish, evaporated milk, frozen orange juice and cabbage.

Meat prices, however, were generally at the national average or below and that for ham - a smoked butt end at 89 cents a pound - was the lowest anywhere.

The extent of food price inflation is shown in the chart that appears with this article. Only five items cost less than they did a year ago as a national average and the increases for some products are staggering. Among them: Cabbage (56.3 percent), ground beef (53.2 percent), rump roast, sirloin steak, wieners and bacon (from 39.2 percent to 28.3 percent), orange juice (33.3 percent), oranges (30.5 percent), dried beans (25 percent) and rice (18.3 percent).

In the face of such statistics, it is unlikely consumers will throw their hats in the air over a 15.4 percent decrease in the price of bananas.

Spokesmen for Giant and Safeway, the areas two largest supermarket chains, both reported less "finger-pointing" by consumers during the current round of increases. "The public is better informed on the root causes of inflation," said Safeway's Ernest Moore, citing in-depth media reports on dramatic increases in beef and lettuce prices recently.

Consumer advocates contend that lack of competition in the local area, where Safeway and Giant have a more than 60 percent share of the market, goes a long way toward explaining why Washington finishes so high in this annual survey. In Tampa, Fla., which posted the least expensive market basket, eight chains compete with no one claiming more than 25 percent of the total market.

Industry spokesmen respond that Washington supermarkets' labor costs are among the highest in the nation and that it and other East Coast cities are far from many sources of supply. They also question the validity of surveys such as this one, suggesting the number of items checked is too small to reflect overall prices and argue only price, not relative quality, of meats, vegetables and fruits is measured. Their contention is that local residents - considered among the most sophisticated and affluent in the nation - demand higher quality (which costs the supermarkets more) than do shoppers elsewhere.

While Washington appears to be among the most expensive U.S. cities in which to shop for food, it reanked below all five Canadian cities that took part in the survey. The Canadian market baskets ranged from $41.12 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to $44.54 in Vancouver.

Honolulu, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Denver did not report prices this year. Philadelphia and Little Rock, both absent from last year's survey, did participate. In each city the survey-taker visited three competing stores and recorded prices. The low price among the three for each item was entered in the market basket.

Locally, lower prices than a year ago were registered for milk (10 cents), potatoes (20 cents) and tomatoes (11 cents). Bread, flour, pineapple, broccoli, pork chops and bananas were unchanged. The largest increases were bacon (50 cents), sirloin steak (45 cents), wieners and ground beef (40 cents), coffee (30 cents), cheese (28 cents), oranges (25 cents) and sugar (24 cents).