First Esther Peterson gives the bad news: "Each year American families pay more and more of their incomes for the basic necessities. That's because spiraling inflation hits hardest at food, housing, energy and health care."

Then the good: "There's a new movement, an exciting cooperative spirit, making itself felt everywhere from rural towns to big-city neighborhoods. Consumers are working together on inflation-fighting projects."

This bootstrap approach, or "people movement" -- as the president's special assistant for consumer affairs prefers to call it -- was the theme of last week's Low-Income Consumer Self-Helf Conference, cosponsored by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, Howard University and the Office of Consumer Protection.

About 500 consumer and community grassroots activists attended three days of workshops on everything from food-buying clubs to housing collectives. Many, as leaders in "the people movement," described community projects aimed at lowering costs or improving services.

Some 100 of these projects are featured in the U.S. Consumer Office's new (and free) self-help book, "People Power," released at the conference. It is a book of inspiration: from descriptions of a California ride-sharing program that saves commuters $4 million, to community gardening projects reportedly producing $13 billion of produce annually.

It is also a "how-to guide -- listing resources for technical assistance and financing -- for groups intrested in starting their own projects.

Eligible consumer co-ops can now get funding from the new National Consumer Cooperative Bank. Created by Congress and opened in March, the bank offers loans, special grants and training.

"Co-ops are low-income consumer's one chance to pay less and get more, said bank president Carol Greenwald. "In the areas of housing, food, health and energy, cooperatives offer people the only way they can directly affect inflation."

Greenwald outlined these ways co-ops can help low-income consumers:

Housing: "Condomania is a national crisis, accelerating the displacement of low-income residents at the same time as they are drastically reducing the stock of rental housing.

"Tenants can form a cooperative and, with a loan from the co-op bank, buy the building from their landlord. The co-op bank can also provide financing for rehabilitation of the property."

Energy: "Community energy cooperatives, using the co-op bank for their financing, can develop alternative renewable energy sources as a vital tool in neighborhood revitalization and community development.

"Substantial cost savings can be achieved through bulk fuel purchases. The cooperative could supply standard service contracts for boiler maintenance to members . . . at a lower rate than market rates because of the non-profit nature of the cooperative."

Food: "When a supermarket chain abandons a neighborhood, community leaders should not waste their time trying to convince the chain to change its mind. The community should take the store over as a food co-op and thus ensure lower prices and better quality food products for their families."

Health: "Health-care cooperatives offer a means of providing quality health care at the lowest possible cost."

In addition to economic benefits, co-ops offer "a sense of community," Greenwald said, to combat "the daily struggle to make ends meet."

"A cooperative is a group of people committed to helping each other cope with adversity through sharing. In shared problem solving, one helps not only fellow members, but also experiences a sense of satisfaction in having helped." CAPTION:

Illustration, no caption, From "People Power"