Students who regularly grab a meal at Jack MacGee's Grill in Smith Union may have noticed that ever since Spring Break, they have had to cough up a few extra coins for their Polar Bear Burger.

A sign in front of the cash register explained the change.

"In response to rapidly rising food costs," it read, "it has become necessary to adjust some menu prices accordingly."

Although the price increases on pub food?typically only 15 or 25 cents?may seem like a small matter, they represent trickle-down effects of large economic trends that are affecting food producers, retailers, and consumers nationwide.

In the offices that overlook the serving lines at Thorne Dining Hall, whose top-ranked fare was celebrated most recently this week in the style pages of the New York Times, a team of literal and figurative bean-counters are constantly brainstorming ways to maintain Bowdoin's dining reputation in the face of spiking food prices.

"We don't want to negatively affect the students' experience," said Michele Gaillard, assistant director of operations for the Bowdoin Dining Service. "If we're going to [change] something, we want to do something that you won't notice."

So far, Gaillard said, the Dining Service has not removed any items from the menus, mainly because the foods that have seen the most startling price hikes?such as milk, eggs, and wheat flour?are items that are too important to be left off the shopping list.

However, the Grill has reduced its number of regular workers for the first time in nearly a decade due to the tightening belt, according to Manager of Cash Operations and Student Employment Tricia Gipson.

At this time last year, the College was buying 50-pound bags of wheat flour for $15 each. Last month, each bag cost $29?a 93-percent increase. The price of 30-dozen cases of eggs jumped 69 percent, from $28 to $47. While Gaillard cautioned that these figures may be exaggerated by recent spikes, the nine-month average increases for these items were also substantial.

Milk prices, which in Maine are regulated by the Maine Milk Commission (MMC), have also increased from last year, although more modestly: The minimum wholesale prices for whole and skim milk have risen 13 and 14 percent, respectively.

Eggs are not only a staple of the breakfast and brunch menus, but they are also used heavily in baked goods and other foods. So is milk. And as part of its commitment to healthful food, Dining uses at least 25 percent whole wheat flour in all of its flour-based foods.

According to media reports, the wheat flour hike can be traced to increasing demand in China and other Asian countries, which have bought up a great deal of American flour, due in part to a favorable exchange rate. This has made the flour relatively scarce?and therefore expensive?for domestic consumers like the Bowdoin Dining Service.

The effects of expensive wheat then trickle down and inflate the costs of eggs, milk, and meat, because high wheat prices increase the cost of livestock production.

Additionally, rising fuel costs have made delivering food to campus more expensive, prompting some vendors to impose surcharges on top of their rising wholesale prices. Gipson said some of the C-Store's vendors have done this, and Dining recently received a letter from Portland-based Oakhurst Dairy informing them of a small price increase on non-MMC-regulated products to make up for the cost of fuel.

An incidental effect of higher shipping costs is that in some cases it is can be more cost-efficient to buy from smaller, local vendors, Gaillard said, pointing out that buying wheat flour from Aroostook County has become cheaper than ordering from larger, out-of-state companies.

In order to recoup the rising costs of wholesale and shipping, the Dining Service has begun to seek discounts by purchasing goods in greater quantity. However, Gaillard noted that the effectiveness of this strategy is limited because there are not many places to store extra food.

"There are a lot of deals that we can't take advantage of because we don't have the storage space," Gaillard said.

She said the College has "taken over" some areas formerly used by Facilities, but extra space is still hard to come by. Workers at Moulton Union have trouble enough already with limited storage capacity, Gaillard said, and Gipson indicated that the Grill and C-Store are no better off.

Gaillard said that while the Dining Service has so far been able to avoid making any noticeable changes to its menu, that may change if prices continue to climb.

Gipson said more price mark-ups at the C-Store and Grill are not out of the question, either.

"The trend's looking that way," she said. "...We might be forced to."