For most of the Pennsylvania 10th-graders who spent their field trip in Washington, the D.C. Central Kitchen is as close to KP as they'll ever get.

Shaving carrots, chopping tomatoes, stirring huge buckets of beans -- what might be a lark for 15 minutes turned out to be something rather more somber after three hours. "How many of those boxes do we have to fill?" asked one in a near-whisper, glancing with apprehension at the large plastic bin.

An older volunteer shrugged and smiled. "They serve 3,500 meals a day." The boy took a deep breath and began slicing again. "You're doing an excellent job, excellent," said Carolyn Parham, smoothly replenishing his supply of carrots even as she complimented him. (I'm not making fun; since I can reduce a cucumber to reasonably thin slices in 10 or 12 seconds, I was transformed into Parham's cucumber queen for a day.)

The students, whose volunteer stint was part of a required course on social issues at Christopher Dock High School in Lansdale, Pa., were among many smaller organizations -- church groups, corporations, unions, even extended families -- who use the 9-to-noon shift at D.C. Central Kitchen as their form of community service. Every day since 1989, DCCK has been turning close to a ton of unsold or unserved food from area restaurants, groceries, caterers, university cafeterias and hotels into meals that are then delivered to more than 100 nonprofit agencies, such as senior or child centers, after-school programs and homeless shelters (it operates out of the basement of the Community for Creative Non-Violence building at Second and E streets NW). In fact, though the official number is 3,500, the kitchen actually provides closer to 4,000 meals every day, so the 20 or so volunteers the kitchen can accommodate are almost essential to getting the delivery trucks out on schedule.

It's an eye-opening experience for anyone who's never seen a commercial kitchen, a warren of lanky steel tables, well-used hotel pans, piles of white chopping blocks and scores of chefs' knives. Since it was cobbled together from storage space -- the general manager's office is in a former broom closet -- it has tight corners where relatively luxurious restaurant kitchens might have extra counters, and whatever bins are wanted are always under the table you're squashed up against. ("Behind you!" is the constant warning.) The huge hot-meal "kettles" used to prepare food for CCNV residents look more like those cauldrons cannibals in cartoons used to simmer unwary explorers, except that they tilt for pouring and have their own water faucets. The way into the kitchen is through the loading dock and down a drab institutional green hallway -- not exactly the gateway to greatness.

It is, however, the doorway to a new life for many. The D.C. Central Kitchen is actually half-kitchen, half-culinary school: The other part of its mission is to teach homeless and unemployed students basic cooking skills so that graduates of its 12-week training course can get jobs in the food service industry. (Volunteers generally work only in the mornings so they don't interfere with classes after lunch.) Consequently many of those wearing chef's whites are nearly as awkward as the volunteers, and have to be reminded to put wet towels under the chopping boards to keep them steady on the stainless steel tables, to tuck their fingers under when chopping and never to slice with the blade toward the body. (One volunteer, a student at nearby Georgetown Law School, learned that the hard way after she nicked her left hand.)

There is actually a third branch, Fresh Start, a baking and catering business that hires new graduates of the kitchen's course and provides an opportunity for more advanced training on the job; however, there is a careful line between DCCK and Fresh Start, because the catering operation is a commercial venture and purchases its food instead of using donations. In addition, the kitchen has opened a pilot Campus Kitchen program at St. Louis University in Missouri, which involves students, on-campus food service pros and volunteers to help combat hunger; two more are in the works.

People tend to assume that D.C. Central Kitchen mainly needs extra hands in the kitchen (and some mistakenly assume that means reasonably proficient cooking skills), but in fact there are any number of other ways in which the staff and budget are stretched thin: According to general manager Cynthia Rowland, who has been doubling as executive director since founder Robert Egger left to help reboot the struggling United Way of the National Capital Area, the culinary students need help developing interview skills or more professional images, assistance in producing re{acute}sume{acute}s and other general social skills as much as cooking techniques. "Those are professional skills people can 'donate,' " says Rowland. There are always administrative or office chores for volunteers who don't like cooking, too: phone calls, envelope-stuffing, computer work, etc.

And there are donations in addition to labor that would be extremely welcome. The kitchen's wish list, which would be on its Web site except that its computer volunteer moved away, ranges from durable starches such as flour and rice to a coffeemaker and food processor to a bookshelf, PC and printer, electric forklift and even a cargo van -- "preferably with refrigeration."

"We were so excited because somebody finally bought a coat rack," says staffer Scott Weier. "It's not the kind of luxury we can usually afford."

Now if they can just get a cheap computer geek . . .

D.C. CENTRAL KITCHEN needs volunteers daily from 9 to noon; some evening hours are available for outreach programs; call 202-234-7070, Ext. 110. To arrange a donation or find out more about the wish list, call 202-234-0707, Ext. 107; or go to the Web site at www.dccentralkitchen.org.

Volunteers Salif Badiane and Jonathan Garcia load boxes at D.C. Central Kitchen, which daily turns nearly a ton of unsold or unserved food from groceries and restaurants into meals for nonprofits.