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On a narrow avenue filled with noodle sellers and the tang of cooking oil, Sukirman, 32, ekes out a living selling bags of banana fritters, fried tofu and chunks of stringy white cassava for about 2,000 rupiah (22 cents). The street vendor, who is married with three children, has never seen food prices climb this high during eight years of selling snacks to office workers flooding out of the skyscrapers that define the modern Indonesian skyline.

"Life is getting even harder," says Sukirman, who earns just a few dollars each day working in the capital city Jakarta. His cart holds a deep fryer that bubbles away, fuelled by subsidized but increasingly expensive natural gas. "Sometimes I think maybe the people on the top want to eradicate us, because prices increase and poor people can't afford them."

In Indonesia, the prices of some essentials have surged more than 50 per cent since January. Prices for tofu, soybeans and gasoline are now beyond the reach of the poorest families, rattling a government wary of social unrest. It responded by slashing import tariffs and subsidizing food in local markets, but that's not enough to ease the sting for many families in the developing world who must spend 50 to 60 per cent of their income on food, reports the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

From his broken patch of sidewalk in Jakarta, Sukirman says that everyone is tightening their belts and charging or paying higher prices. Some street vendors are reverting to sleight of hand at the lunch counter: smaller chunks of tofu and tempeh, a traditional Javanese soybean cake, for the same price. Rumours here abound that prices will climb even higher, despite the pain of the current ones.

"I used to be able to afford 10 kilograms of cooking oil per day when it was only rupiah 7,000 (78 cents) per kilogram. Now I can buy only five kilos. It is the same with flour," he said. "You don't call this an increase. ... This is a 'change of price.' "

While rising food prices have hit everybody, the poorest feel the pinch the most. Some have found the difference between scraping by and going hungry is only a few cents.

Sukirman returns each night to a plywood house in a vacant field near his street cart. Their youngest child, just eight months old, drinks baby formula that costs the family a relative fortune: A 39,000 rupiah ($4.30) packet lasts only four days. Their other children must make do with what Sukirman can earn from his cart.

"There are many of my friends in the same business who have gone bankrupt," he says, expressing hope that the government and those in power will help them. "If the head is happy, then the tail should be, too."