Washington area supermarket prices soared by 2.3 percent in April, continuing the surge in food costs that has been the price of groceries here increase by about 6 percent since January.

The April increase here, which was higher than the nationwide average of 2 percent for the same month, was fueled largely by a 3.6 percent rise in the price of beef, poultry and fish. Shoppers were also confronted with higher prices for fresh fruits, soft drinks, cereal and bakery products and fresh milk.

Washington's April food price increases surpassed the increases recorded for the same month by Baltimore, where prices increased by 1.8 percent; Philadelphia, where food cost grew by 1.1 percent; and New York City, where the cost of food was up 1.7 percent, according to the Department of Labor.

At least part of the reason for the disparity between the increase locally and elsewhere is attributable to the affluence of the Washington area, which boasts Montgomery and Fairfax counties, tha nation's two wealthiest. Wealthier areas tend to eat more beef, and demand for the product was heavy here during April, sending prices soaring.

According to a spokesman for Safeway stores in the Washington area, wholesale prices the food store chain pays for beef have jumped more than 25 percent since January here.

Sharp price gains in items such as beef were not offset by price declines registered in April for eggs, pork, roasted coffee and flour, the government said.

Area grocery prices had increased at a moderate rate of 0.5 percent in March after sharper rises of 2.2 percent in February and 1.2 percent in January. Neither the local nor national figures are adjusted to reflect seasonal variations in the highly volatile food sector of the economy.

Bureau of Labor Statistics spokesman Jeffrey Thomas said that, despite a local increase in April that exceeded national averages, "over the long run, the trends in food price increases (here and across the nation) are fairly close together."

He said there is "no significant difference" between price increases here and elsewhere except that various cities experience upward pressures on costs at different times. Thus, during March, Washington area prices rose only moderately as prices in other cities increased at a faster rate.

Baltimore consumers also experienced sharp increases for meat, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables while in Philadelphia, the overall increase was blunted by a significant decline in that market's bakery and cereal prices, Thomas said. Much of the New York food price increase in April was attributed to fruits and vegetables.

All of the East Coast fruits and vegetable price rises reflected damage to crops in such growing states as California.

Area lettuce prices, for example, rose 150 percent earlier this year. And an Agriculture Department report yesterday said that prices received by farmers for vegetables during May rose 5 percent, at indication that additional price increases can be expected at supermarket checkout counters.

According to Ernest Moore, spokesman locally for Safeway, which is one of the area's two largest food retailers and the biggest U.S. supermarket chain, his company does not anticipate any short-term reduction in beef prices because of a supply shortage and high consumer demand.

But both Moore and Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc. which is the other leading food retailer here, forecast an improved outlook for produce prices. "There will be a tremendous increase in fruit and vegetable supplies," Scher said. And Moore noted that lettuce prices, which peaked earlier at about $1 a head, already have declined to 50 cents a head.

The food cost inflation rate figure was pinching enough paychecks yesterday to cause some concern - and a lot of frustration - among area shoppers.

Coming out of the Safeway food stores at 17th and Corcoran streets, Daniel and Mary Dixon both looked with some astonishment at their single bag of groceries - not even filled - which had cost them $14.37.

"Meat is going up, sodas, fruit, you name it," Dixon said. "They put it to you too fast. Everything is going sky high."

He added, with a thinly disguised shrug, "You can't do anything about it. You got to eat, and they're in charge."

At another store in the Safeway chain, the Townhouse located in the more affluent neighborhood of 20th Street NW near Connecticut Avenue, shoppers there were also feeling the food price crunch.

Ray and Debby Peck claim they have helped themselves by buying only essential items at the Townhouse store, and then doing their weekly shopping in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "It's definitely cheaper out there," Debby Peck said, adding "Of couse, it's not cheap anywhere."