They came in rattletrap Fords and brand new Trans-Ams, but they all were there for the same reason. Food. For 19 needy Alexandria families, this year's Christmas dinner was on the Elks.

Four members of Alexandria Lodge #758 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks stood in the shadow of their former home at 319 Prince St., and distributed food packages last Saturday. On a balmy and blue-skied day, they loaded boxes of food into the waiting vehicles.

Jack Martin, who could have passed for Santa with his white beard and red sweater and trousers, stood puffing on his pipe as the distribution progressed. Martin, who was in charge of this year's distribution, said people receiving the packages were grateful.

Passers-by in this affluent section of Old Town looked on, or crossed to the other side of the street, as the packages were distributed.

Most of those persons receiving food declined comment on the distribution, but one, Bernita Cruse, said the distribution "helped me a lot." Cruse said this is the second year she has received food from the Elks to feed her two daughters and herself.

Each food package distributed by the Elks this year contained a turkey, sugar, flour, potatoes, vegetables, desserts -- "anything and everything," says Jack Martin, "to make up a good Christmas dinner." The packages weighed approximately 40 pounds each.

Lodge Exalted Ruler Bob Long says the Alexandria Elks have been distributing food baskets for more than 40 years. Most of the money for the food distribution comes from member dues, contributions and profits from raffles. Another source of funding is a bequest left to the Elks by the late Elk member William E. Rollenhagen. On his death, Rollenhagen left the Lodge $2,000. Interest from this money is used to support the food drive.

This year's food cost between $750 and $800, according to Martin, and was purchased at the Pershing Market in southern Fairfax County. The packages were brought to the old Elks Lodge early Saturday morning. The distribution, which began at 11 a.m. and ended at 1 p.m., was to have given food to 27 needy families. Only 19 showed up.

The Salvation Army picked up the unclaimed packages for distribution to other needy families.

Each year the Elks decide how many families they will distribute food to based on an estimate of the amount of member contributions. After they have determined the number of food packages they can purchase, the Elks then go to an agency to acquire a list of names. Last year, Alexandria's Department of Human Resources provided names. This year's list came from the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army coordinated this year's Elk's food distribution with those of 35 other organizations. The Army made sure that none of the organizations and churches distributing food duplicated the others' efforts. The groups met with the Army as early as Sept. 19.

Three staffers at the Salvation Army's Alexandria office have been working "17- or 18-hour days since Dec. 1" on the project, according to Maj. James Hipps. These people have been working to make sure the duplications Hipps noted last year are not repeated.