WASHINGTON - The other day, I saw an elderly woman bent over with osteoporosis at the grocery store. She picked up a package of hamburger, looked at the price, sighed, and put it back. Later, I saw her in the bakery department, seemingly astonished because the price of her favorite loaf of bread had gone up again.
At the checkout counter, she laid out coins to pay for an apple and a half-price can of tuna. The clerk later told me the woman is very proud, very sweet, and refuses help. The clerks all are worried about her.
That night, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton met for their final debate before the Pennsylvania primary. They argued over who is less elitest, if he has thoroughly disavowed the words of his pastor, if he should be on a board with an English professor who broke the law when Mr. Obama was 8, her gaffe over not being shot at in Bosnia, and his gaffe over equating guns and religion with frustrated, bitter voters. They discussed bipartisan Social Security commissions, the high price of gasoline, how soon they'd like to get our soldiers out of Iraq, and Iran's unbridled interest in nuclear weapons.
They never once talked about rising food prices here and around the world - wheat, corn, and rice prices are soaring. Of course, the ABC moderators, full of themselves over rehashing old and mostly trivial issues, didn't ask - another reason why I think the 22 debates thus far largely have been a waste of time.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton didn't talk about whether our rush to subsidize and encourage ethanol and biofuels has led farmers to forsake other crops for pricier corn-for-gasoline, falsely assuming this would to lead to energy independence and help cool the earth. The Renewable Fuels Association says this is just the start. There are 147 U.S. ethanol biorefineries and 55 biorefineries under construction. How about a debate on whether we've been too smart for our own good on this issue?
They also didn't discuss the escalating food riots around the globe and what the U.S. policy should be. They didn't talk about what hard-pressed Americans in their own cities of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago are going to do if the food-price spiral continues.
It's hard to believe, when obesity in America is a major health problem, some people go to bed hungry. It's almost inconceivable that parents, trying to stretch paychecks that don't make it to the end of the week, are giving their children cereal for supper. But that is happening.
It's unnerving to read that researchers expect one out of 33 homeowners to lose their houses from foreclosure in the next two years, that oil has hit $115 a barrel, that the nonfarm payrolls have fallen by the biggest margin in five years, that builders have started 12 percent fewer houses in March than in February, that inflation is getting uncomfortable, that lenders, bracing for huge problems in education loans, are refusing more students seeking to borrow money for tuition.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), referencing that one day's worth of bad news, said Congress must work out a bipartisan solution to rising prices, foreclosures, and higher unemployment as well as solutions for a "long-term economic recovery for America."
The presidential candidates, including John McCain, have talked peripherally about this but not in much detail, and they have not been pressed to do so.
The pundits have been swept up in whether Mr. Obama has blown his chance at the White House because of his seeming lack of reverence for gun-toters and Bible thumpers and immigrant bashers. They've been distracted by critics who claim Mrs. Clinton is not credible because she exaggerated the danger when she went to Bosnia years ago. They've been corralled by the debate over whether Mr. McCain is too old and too close to the policies of George W. Bush to become president.
It feels as if the boat is sinking, and those in charge are standing around quarreling about who should distribute the life jackets.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org