The Rev. Charlie Grant's community food bank has a low overhead. If it were any lower, the ceiling of the simple warehouse-type building would be scraping the tops of the plain metal shelves that store hundreds of pounds of dented cans and bashed boxes.
The eastern Loudoun County building where Grant and several helpers collect, sort and distribute food that otherwise might be discarded isn't much to look at, inside or out. Located on land that eventually will be the site of a commercial development, the building has been made available to the food bank rent-free until it is scheduled for demolition.
But the structure is all Grant and the ecumenical volunteer agency Link need to put food in the mouths of the increasing number of hungry people in and near Loudoun for the foreseeable future.
The operation is a shoestring one, based upon volunteer labor, moving food items a trunkload or a box at a time to those in need. Grant, who also is active in the church-funded Emergency Housing Alliance, wouldn't have it any other way.
One of several local food banks in the Washington area, this and other operations could become increasingly important as local and state government budget cuts force officials to scale back public services supported by tax dollars.
For about a year, Grant and regular helpers have been making journeys to a Safeway warehouse in Washington to pick up food that the grocery chain can't sell because the packages have been damaged in appearance, even though the food is edible.
Picking up a sharply dented can of peas one recent morning at the food bank, Grant said, "As long as they haven't lost the seal, we can still use them." About 20 percent of the items are too badly damaged to be consumed, but the rest are made available to any group that demonstrates a legitimate need, he says.
Some of it goes to the private shelters for the homeless run by the Emergency Housing Alliance. Other items are distributed as requests come in, often by word of mouth.
"I get called by pastors, mental health officials, the Red Cross, anybody," said Grant, a minister who runs a print shop and a Christian bookstore.
He isn't sure how much food comes in or goes out in a typical week.
"How do you measure it? I've never even tried," he said, adding that he is grateful for what he has.
The shelves hold a little of everything that isn't perishable: vegetables, candy, nuts, toiletries, baby food, bug spray, Ultra Slim-Fast, tomatoes, taco shells, salt, toothpaste, fruit juices, cereal. One room is reserved for the sorting; the rest handle the storing.
The building bears no sign to distinguish it; organizers of the food bank don't want to invite theft.
"I just call it the food house," said Grant, adding, "This has helped a lot of families . . . . This is one of the best ecumenical projects I've ever been involved with."
To supplement the cans and boxes, Grant and other volunteers pick up donations of bread and milk from two Northern Virginia grocery stores willing to part with items that have just reached their sale expiration dates.
"Some of my vendors are leaving their out-of-date stuff too," said Gene Hendricks, who works in the delivery area of the Countryside Safeway in eastern Loudoun and helped Grant remove several boxes of food one recent morning.
Next on Grant's agenda is a similar operation for clothes and toys. "I've got a tractor-trailer load" ready to be moved to a separate building, where those items will be distributed to people who are truly in need, he said.