When Charles F. Myers tries to tell his Hampden neighbors how to get $35 worth of food for $13, they want to know one thing: What's the catch?
People are asking the same question in West Baltimore, Brooklyn, Catonsville and other metropolitan neighborhoods as an unusual food co-op opens this week in a Linthicum warehouse.
Because these are primarily church members, they have no problem accepting the loaves-and-fishes miracle. But they can't quite believe they can get food -- good food, real food, just-like-at-the-Giant food -- for 60 percent off retail grocery prices, payable in advance, using cash or food stamps.
They're even more dubious when they hear they don't have to be poor to qualify. All they have to do is volunteer two hours of their time to community service each month. The definition of volunteerism is so lenient that talking on the telephone to a shut-in is sufficient.
"The uniqueness of this program is it's not just for the needy, it's for everybody," Mr. Myers said.
"The only problem so far is skepticism."
Tomorrow, about 530 trusting types, recruited by enthusiastic volunteers such as Mr. Myers, will participate in the first monthly distribution of groceries through Share-Baltimore, the newest link a 22-city anti-hunger network nationwide.
For $13, participants this month will receive 18 items, including chicken, turkey, ground turkey, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, apples, bananas, peaches, frozen French fries and a Sara Lee coffeecake.
In other months, they may get a different variety of items.
Share (an acronym for Self-Help and Resource Exchange) started in San Diego in the early 1980s and quickly spread across the country. While the concept owes something to the food co-ops of the 1960s, in which people lowered their grocery prices by contributing labor, Share's ambitions go beyond cost savings.
Share organizers see thousands of volunteers, organized by ZIP code, meeting to determine the needs in their own communities. That reality is perhaps 18 months away for Share-Baltimore, said Director Peggy Cronyn, who hopes the project will have 12,000 clients by then.
That's the break-even point for the local affiliate, which until then will be carried by loans, grants, in-kind donations and the Associated Catholic Charities. Nationwide, the program is self-supporting because its size -- 400,000 households in all -- allows a central buying service to deal directly with food growers and brokers.
Share grew out of desire to take anti-hunger programs beyond simple crisis intervention, Ms. Cronyn said. While churches, synagogues and ecumenical non-profit groups often operate food pantries, these programs tend to become locked into a cycle of giveaways to regular clients.
At the same time, Share plans to generate thousands of hours of community service, bringing together people whose paths might never have crossed.
The local program already is having that effect, as more than 50 volunteers came from throughout Baltimore this week to help prepare for the first food distribution.
There was Mr. Myers, a retired oil burner mechanic, sitting at a long table with women from St. Martin's Church in West Baltimore, cutting and tying strips of red mesh to hold the pounds of onions and potatoes.
"There's nobody who can't do two hours a month," said Mr. Myers, 65 and breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, who ends up volunteering more than 20 hours a month.