THE PRICE of bread and freedom of the press: Polish politics is now engaging the fundamental issues. The printers' strike, and the strikers' demands for access to the media, bring Solidarity very close to one of the central mechanisms of the state's power. Simultaneously, the embattled government has had to announce that it must shortly raise bread prices. As food shortages spread in Poland, it becomes more difficult to avoid raising prices -- and yet, as the government knows from much experience, raising prices is dangerous.

That's now the Polish dilemma -- not only for the government, but for Solidarity as well. The past year's strikes and political turbulence have diminished production. The lower production falls, the more pressing the shortages become. And then people respond to the shortages by further protests. The government doesn't have an answer, but -- it's important to remember -- neither does Solidarity. A week ago, Poland's Catholic bishops issued a "burning appeal" to the country to get back to work. The bishops weren't calling for an end to reform or to the political activity that forces it. Quite the contrary. But they sensed the speed with which the economic and political tensions are beginning to play uncontrollably against each other.

Life in a highly bureaucratized economy has taught the Poles that there's not much of a relation between their hard work and their standard of living. Conversely, now that a great many of them have stopped working and the economy has come to a standstill, there's not much inclination to accept that as an explanation for the lack of food in the stores. The prospects for the harvest are ominous, but Poles -- and Solidarity seems to have little control over it -- look to political action to fill the grocery stores.

They aren't entirely wrong. The Soviets are sending in some food. What about the West? The governments of Western Europe and the United States know they will have to provide emergency aid, and quite a lot of it. They also know that the better solution for the years ahead is to rebuild Polish agriculture around private holdings. But how far can Western donors push toward structural reform without inviting a Soviet reaction?

The West, led by this country, will have to do what it can to avoid hunger in Poland, and yet Western influence on Polish events will be, at best, modest. Food shortages over the past dozen years have had a lot to do with the origins of the protest that Solidarity represents. But the vehemence iof the printers' strike demonstrates the dimensions of the present challenge to the central government's authority.