The Community for Creative Non-Violence picks up where others leave off. Scavenging food at the back doors of Washington's suppliers, it feeds the hungry, yesterday the hungry being a crowd of congressmen, reporters, photographers and the like, gathered in the Rayburn Building's Gold Room to talk about food waste and to taste its fruits.

Not only was this truly a free lunch, it had everything a party could want:

It had an illustrious group of hosts, about 30 members of Congress who are backing a resolution urging government agencies and departments to take steps to distribute surplus food to the hungry; state and local governments to enact Good Samaritan, Donor Liability or other laws to encourage private cooperative efforts to provide food for the hungry; and food distributors to work closely with charitable organizations to make food that would otherwise be wasted available to hungry people.

It had a glamorous menu of crudite's with dip, cold cut platter, crab and Alsatian quiche, fresh green beans with mushrooms and bacon, potatoes au gratin, salads of crunchy raw vegetables and of fresh fruits with pink yogurt dressing and a shortcake made of stunningly large and sweet boysenberries.

It had a food cost of zero. All of this food was scrounged over the last week from the discards of supermarkets and wholesalers. It was routine procedure for the CCNV, which feeds 300 to 500 needy people each evening at its 1211 I St. alley soup kitchen, from which it is being evicted next month.

For the CCNV this luncheon was small potatoes.

"It looks great," marvelled one of the Rayburn's food staff, watching the food being wheeled down the corridors. Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) cited General Accounting Office calculations that 137 million tons of food--more than 20 percent of this country's total food production--is wasted annually, which comes to 23 pounds each week for every man, woman and child, or enough to feed almost 50 million people. A substantial part of that waste, according to the CCNV, includes food that is still fresh and wholesome but may be past its selling date, in damaged or outdated packages or mixed in with spoiled food.

Rep. Fortney (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.), however, admitted, "It smells a lot nicer in here today than it did last week," when some of the scavenged food was first brought into the building. It not only smelled good, a lavish display of food stretching from wall to wall outshone the produce found at many markets. "I saw crates of tomatoes that looked fresher than what I have in my home refrigerator," commented Hall. Enormous baskets were filled with crusty rolls. Big striped watermelons flanked crates of cherries and cantaloupes, baskets of beans, leeks and parsley. The mushrooms were large and just threatening to darken. Red and green peppers looked shiny and firm. There were everyday onions and potatoes, exotic enoki mushrooms, mangoes and coconuts. The tables were piled high with hot dogs, bacon, kielbasa, baby food, cartons of yogurt, bags of M&M's.

"This food is nutritious, it's healthy and it's good for you," boasted Hall. Few other party givers make such claims. The food had needed picking over and cleaning, there being damaged goods among the intact ones. But the perishables had been kept cold or frozen, the packaged goods culled for those with only cosmetic problems. And there remained not only enough to feed more than 150 at lunch, but plenty for the CCNV to serve at dinner. Even the potted plants that decorated the tables were salvaged goods.

Cooking with such an inventory indeed takes creativity. "You become innovative. There's no predicting what you'll get," explained Todd Kaplan, one of the cooks. Usually the CCNV's dinners consist of stews and salads, but this week's cache had yielded enough still-chilled crab meat from Giant's discards to warrant crab quiche. Seafood is frequently found, since stores are very cautious about it and throw it away exactly on its pull date, said Kaplan; you have to be careful, though, to retrieve it while it is still chilled or frozen. While the fruit salad was elegant--melons, grapes and berries, none of it canned or frozen, and topped with those faddish yogurt-covered raisins--Kaplan said that the best fruit salads are made in winter, since expensive out-of-season fruits often go to waste--the higher the selling price, the more is discarded. CCNV's dinners routinely include fresh strawberries in winter. Another routine catch is beer and wine, the beer cans perhaps dented or not sufficiently filled, the wine bottles chipped or with missing labels. While CCNV might occasionally use some in cooking, usually those beverages are left behind.

The buffet was so appealing that it distracted police dogs brought into the Gold Room when a bomb scare forced the guests into the corridors. The dogs couldn't sniff accurately amid such abundance. Thus the party was moved across the hall, just as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is said to ordinarily eat lunch at his desk, arrived to fill a plate with quiche and green beans and lend his support to the group's resolution. "Tasty," he managed between bites. "Very good."

Pete Stark even had seconds, with doubles on bacon, though he discreetly left the quiche crust uneaten. He invited any food editors in the crowd to "taste it for yourself. Review the chef's cooking."

We did. It was, to be frank, just a notch above the usual lunch on the rubber quiche circuit. But we sure wish we knew where to find such boysenberries.