MOSCOW -- No sooner had Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finished a televised speech about food prices than the phone rang in a young working woman's Moscow apartment.

"Don't worry," said her mother on the other end of the line. "I have plenty of meat in the icebox for all of us."

The reaction was instant and not uncommon: Of all the economic changes under discussion in the Soviet Union, price reform has evoked the quickest reponse and the greatest anxiety among the public.

People here were concerned about price increases before Gorbachev raised the subject in the Arctic city of Murmansk earlier this month: Gorbachev himself said it is a question he hears wherever he goes.

But since the speech, apparently intended as reassurance, the level of worry seems to have risen. There is no visible hoarding, but rumors of imminent price increases are rife. The government newspaper Izvestia this week reported a "lively debate" in letters to the editor and printed one reader's comment that Gorbachev's remarks were "an alarming symptom of isolation from real life."

So far, 2 1/2 years into the Gorbachev era, much of the Soviet public has not seen any tangible benefits from perestroika, as his reforms are called. Now, with higher prices looming on such basic commodities as meat, milk and bread, many people feel threatened and less inclined to be enthusiastic about his program.

"I am afraid that in the event of a price hike on food stuffs, people could turn away from perestroika, as they would from a con game," wrote a journalist in Literaturnaya Gazeta this summer. "And then the real opponents of perestroika will raise their heads."

For years, the Soviet Union has prided itself on the stability of its basic prices: rents last rose in 1928, the price of bread, sugar and eggs in 1954 and meat in 1962. These facts always topped any recitation of the advantages of Soviet life, whether delivered for domestic or foreign consumption.

But low food prices -- two rubles a kilo for meat ($3.12 for 2.2 lbs), 20 cents for a loaf of white bread, 50 cents for a quart of milk -- are more than just symbolic for the average Soviet wage earner who now makes $312 a month. Considering the high cost of clothes -- $101 for a skirt, $93 for a blouse, $312 for a coat -- these salaries mean that many families are living from month to month.

According to published figures, more than 40 percent of Soviet families average less than $156 a month per person, and 30 percent of people's income is spent on food.

Many Soviet consumers do have money to spare -- private automobiles are snapped up at prices of $9,360 to $14,040, and $421 billion is reported to be lying idle in private savings accounts. But much of this money comes from income earned on "the left," or illegally, or by people in far-flung places where salaries are high and goods scarce.

The archaic, cumbersome Soviet pricing system -- based on 200,000 items individually valued by the state committee on prices -- is widely viewed as one of the key handicaps to real reforms of the economy. Heavy government subsidies mean there is little relationship between production costs and retail prices.

The result is a heavy drain on the state treasury -- $88.9 billion in meat and milk subsidies alone last year -- and waste by consumers. In Murmansk, Gorbachev noted that bread in this country is so cheap that people have lost respect for the product and children use bread loaves as footballs.

The subsidies also lead to bizarre discrepancies: Gorbachev's example was that one pair of women's boots at $187 to $203 costs as much as one person's annual supply of meat, 136 pounds.

In June, the Communist Party Central Committee agreed to overhaul the entire pricing structure as part of a major economic reform and, for the first time, top Soviet economists began to speak openly about the need to cut back on food subsidies.

In interviews, economists have stressed that the price reform will not be completed for another two years -- at the end of the current five-year plan. They also emphasize that no basic food prices will go up without compensating increases in salaries, wages and pensions. Gorbachev stressed the same point in Murmansk: "We do not solve economic problems by cutting the living standards of the working people."

But no matter how often these assurances are repeated, people are skeptical. "With all due respect to Mikhail Sergeyevich {Gorbachev}," began one Izvestia reader with what editors called "transparent irony," "it seems -- just imagine this -- that prices are going to be raised in order to raise people's living standards."

Others took exception to Gorbachev's examples. "The problem isn't the price of meat," said one Soviet consumer. "It's the price of boots."

The debate over food prices coincides with the rising cost of living in other spheres. The growth in semiprivate services, cooperative stores and restaurants usually has meant higher prices. In some cases, it has meant better goods and services; in other cases, it has not.

Liquor has risen in price over the past two years as part of Gorbachev's campaign against alcoholism. A pint of vodka now costs $15.60, and lines continue to stretch out shop doors and down streets, creating another source of popular grumbling.

In Murmansk, Gorbachev also acknowledged hearing these complaints. "We know what people, lining up for liquor, say about the government," he said.