If energy inflation has good news, it's that alternatives exist. But when it comes to food inflation, well, let's just say that eating has no pleasant alternative.

Today we pay 15 percent more for cheese, 16 percent more for bread and 23 percent more for eggs than we did last year. Why? More demand for meat in industrializing countries, competition for acreage with ethanol-producing plants and higher costs for petroleum fertilizers in our industrial crops. And here in Utah where our best farmland sits under strip malls and subdivisions, we also pay a premium to truck in our food.

We should probably get used to high food prices.

Although those on the edge of subsistence in this country haven't rioted as elsewhere, they are adopting new survival strategies, like visiting food pantries in record numbers. And pantry workers — God bless them — prove you can get blood from a stone.

But let's get real, folks. Charity is not the solution to hunger. Donated food makes up only 5 percent of all food resources for the poor. Yes, you can eat from a pantry, but your food will consist of whatever happens to be on hand. Have food allergies? Need baby food or infant formula? Diabetic? Good luck. Pantries don't have the resources to meet special dietary needs.

Worse, most provide only about 18 days worth of food per year. A dietitian once offered to do an assessment of the food bags at our pantry. When I brought it up with my boss, he said, "Why? We already know it's inadequate, and we can't do anything about it."

Even the LDS Church, which arguably does charitable food better than anyone, doesn't have the resources to feed all comers. And no matter how you slice it, charitable food is spectacularly inefficient. Spend a little time volunteering at your local food bank, and you'll see. It takes armies of volunteers to buy, collect and deliver the food. More to sort, inspect and store it. Still more to dispense and track it. And all this costs money. Why not just give hungry people a card so they can go to the grocery store?

Actually, we do. This is precisely the concept of the Food Stamp Program. It's efficient, humane, and it works. It not only assures the nutritional well-being of over 53,000 Utah households, it injects over $130 million each year into Utah's economy, with grocers getting the first bite. Thank both Presidents Clinton and Bush for cutting fraud from the program. Today you can't get prepared food or diapers with food stamps, let alone beer or cigarettes.

With Utah ranked by the USDA as one of the top five "food insecure" states in the country, the only question is, why aren't food stamps used more broadly? Only about 60 percent of eligible Utah households use food stamps. This means an additional $110 million in federal funds already earmarked for hunger relief are left on the table each year.

I know the thought of encouraging food stamp use makes some taxpayers chafe. But until now, we didn't understand the cost of hunger to our society. Larry Brown from the Harvard School of Public Health recently studied the question. Using the same methods for calculating the cost of problems like obesity and smoking, he put a price tag on hunger in America: It costs us $90 billion per year.

And the cost to "virtually end hunger in our nation"? About $10 billion to $12 billion per year.

With so many social problems seemingly beyond hope, isn't it nice to know that here's one we can fix?

Tim Shultz ran an emergency food pantry for five years in downtown Salt Lake City. He now coordinates the Food Stamp Access Project for Utahns Against Hunger.