CUMBERLAND, MD. -- Bill Leasure feeds far more people now than he ever did at the combination grocery-grill-bar that he used to own.

In Leasure's program for the needy, those who benefit also contribute. Two years ago, the Cumberland-based program served 144 families. Today, largely through Leasure's tireless promotion, it serves 1,500 families.

"At one point, they told me to stop talking about it so much," said Leasure, whose work was recognized this fall by the Maryland Food Committee, a statewide anti-hunger organization. "They said, 'Bill, we've got more than we can handle.' "

The program is run by Interfaith Consortium, a coalition of religious groups established in 1969 to help the needy in Western Maryland and nearby communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The consortium began 21 years ago when two ministers, a rabbi and a Catholic priest realized that poor people in their geographically isolated area needed help.

They believed aid should never undercut dignity.

"Everyone in our programs is a volunteer," Leasure said. "They come down here, help give out food, get food, and they do it with dignity."

Low-income families who meet relatively liberal eligibility standards make $5 donations, which entitle them to a monthly allocation of groceries. Recipients carrying laundry baskets and cardboard boxes pick up their allotments -- more than $40 worth of staples such as cereal and canned goods -- at various sites.

Leasure, 60, of Cumberland, knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of the food line. About four years ago, he returned to his native Cumberland from California, and could not find a job.

"I was having hardships and people were helping us. The neighbors would bring over things," he said. "We'd find a box of food on our porch."

Someone referred him to a truck-driving job with Legal Aid. Leasure discovered it was a volunteer job, but a woman at Legal Aid referred him to Interfaith. In short time, Leasure had gone from worrying about feeding himself to worrying about feeding others.

"Doctor of Foodology" is what a Presbyterian minister calls Leasure. Some people in Cumberland seem to think he is Santa Claus. Calls come in for winter coats and help with heating bills -- types of aid well outside Leasure's purview. Still, he gives such calls his best shot.

"The food program is the door-opener to everything else," he said.

But the anxiety that dogs Leasure is that no person or single program can begin to address the needs in Western Maryland.

"We know we're just skimming the surface," he said. "Our biggest worry is making sure senior citizens get enough."