These are increasingly lean times for the folks at D.C. Central Kitchen.

They might not appear so during a typical morning's flurry, as a fleet of trucks begins returning with another ton of donated food, and the chefs start to work their magic with the current class of culinary trainees and that day's crew of volunteers. By early afternoon, another several thousand meals await delivery to seniors and the homeless, to ex-cons and the mentally ill, to addicts and others throughout the city and even in the suburbs who are badly down on their luck.

Every corner of the operation, in the basement of the Federal City Shelter near Second and E streets NW, is in use. Flats of bread are parked against one wall. Depending on the day, the main walk-in freezer is piled high with vats of chili mac or salmon patties.

And yet: The nonprofit organization, one of the largest of its kind in the country, is worrying about the future. More specifically, it's worrying about its ability to sustain, much less grow, its massive response to enduring hunger in the community.

"We're struggling," said founder, president and chief executive Robert Egger, acknowledging that significant service reductions might be required. "We cannot continue to serve for free thousands of meals a day."

Though the kitchen has expanded greatly since Egger first envisioned it more than 16 years ago -- its chef training program, which goes beyond feeding to empowering, is a celebrated model -- the heart of its mission remains those meals.

They are prepared at little or no charge for shelters, recreation centers, senior housing, social service programs and street people. The kitchen does so largely by recycling donated ingredients, excess food that might otherwise be tossed. Yet that doesn't guarantee the most nutritionally balanced supplies, and in recent years the organization has augmented contributions with purchases now approaching $10,000 monthly.

"We could switch to rice and beans every day, but that's not what we're all about," said Michael F. Curtin Jr., a former restaurateur who now wears the hat of chief operating officer.

With no slack in demand, ever-tighter philanthropic funding, and rising costs of meat, produce and especially gasoline for the extensive pickup and delivery routes, the $6.6 million operation has been nearing a budget crossroads. Its leaders have hoped that the D.C. government, whose backing essentially amounts to free rent and utilities, would agree to an actual line-item appropriation. City officials quickly turned to the kitchen when they needed someone to feed Hurricane Katrina evacuees being brought to the D.C. Armory.

"We've reached a point . . . where we can't do this without a strong partnership with the city," Egger said.

Some cuts already have been discussed. Thanks to a foundation grant, the kitchen has long been supplying weekday lunches to the several dozen residents at Sarah's Circle, a housing program in the Adams Morgan area for low-income seniors. But the grant ended in 2004 and, given current circumstances, the kitchen recently told Sarah's Circle's Executive Director Ruth Sachs that the meals might, too.

"They do a wonderful job," she said. "It would just be a shame if funding did not permit them to continue serving the neediest in our community."

After months of discussion, city officials promised the organization a $75,000 grant. As of Tuesday, the kitchen still had not received any money. The promise came only "after some prodding" within the bureaucracy, said Deputy Mayor Neil O. Albert, a supporter who said he expects that amount to double in the next fiscal year.

"They fill a void in the city that has gone uncompensated for too long," Albert said late last week. He declined to discuss whether the city should have contributed money earlier but conceded it should better aid in the feeding of its own citizens.

"I really think it is a responsibility of city government," he said.

According to D.C. Hunger Solutions, a project launched in 2003 to improve the nutrition and health of the District's children and families, about 175,000 residents count on food banks, pantries and soup kitchens for what they eat. One in three children lives "on the edge of hunger." One in 10 households experiences "food insecurity" because of only tenuous or minimal access to nutritionally balanced food -- though that rate has fallen since the late 1990s and is below the national average.

"D.C. government allots very few dollars on food programs of its own city budget," project director Kim Perry said. "The D.C. government should put more money toward anti-hunger programs." Chief among those, in her mind, is D.C. Central Kitchen. "They do need help," she said. "And the thing about D.C. Central Kitchen is, it's not just about food. It's about rebuilding people's lives."

The organization was born in the late '80s after Egger, whose career aspirations then centered solely on opening his own nightclub, helped a Georgetown area church group hand out sandwiches one winter's night on local street corners. He asked the leaders where they got the food. Bought at a Georgetown grocery store, they replied.

In a moment he considers an epiphany, Egger realized two things: how little those sandwiches were truly improving the recipients' lives and futures, and how much further the dollars spent on them could be stretched if mixed with creativity and the vast amounts of uneaten food he knew nightclubs and restaurants regularly threw away.

He and a couple of friends secured a kitchen in the basement of a converted dentist's office and applied for grants to support the idea. Every foundation but one, the William S. Abell Foundation in Chevy Chase, turned them down. They used their sole $20,000 award on a refrigerated truck to collect leftovers and disburse meals.

And their first major donor? The January 1989 inaugural balls of George Herbert Walker Bush. (Organizers of inaugural events for his successor, Bill Clinton, also participated, but the festivities for the second President Bush did not.)

These days, food comes from restaurants high- and lowbrow. It also comes from wholesalers such as Costco, nonprofit organizations such as the National Press Club, law firms, caterers, churches and hospitals. A truck picks up donations weekly from Sidwell Friends School, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and twice weekly during the summer from Smokey Glen Farm Barbequers Inc. in Gaithersburg. In August, bushels of vegetables arrived from the National Arboretum.

Over the years, the founder's original idea has expanded to include a volunteer corps that last year logged more than 48,000 hours, a street outreach program, a healthy-snacks initiative for local schoolchildren and half a dozen "campus kitchens" that mount similar food-recycling efforts at colleges across the country.

And crucial to the day-in, day-out work at the 10,000-square-foot kitchen on Second Street NW is the Culinary Job Training Program Day. To date it has graduated more than 500 chefs, most of them men and women whose resumes once were limited to drug addictions, prison and lengthy joblessness. For many, their completion certificate represents the first success of their lives.

The kitchen hires many of the graduates. Their overall employment rate after six months out is about 75 percent, said Curtin, who knows better than anyone the demands of the operation and the current students' needs.

Bo Sims is two years past his training and in his 20th month of employment at the kitchen, where he has worked himself up to assistant chef and weekend supervisor. He hasn't forgotten how much his life once paralleled those of the men and women now eating his fixings.

"Oh, man, one day I was in that situation," he said as he tended a gigantic pot of egg noodles, sweat beading his brow. "And now I'm helping to prepare food for them. It's a feeling, a good one."

Along one aisle workers were preparing the next evening's chicken stroganoff (the poultry purchased from a supporter at 48 cents a pound and pulled apart by a contingent of volunteers from the Embassy Suites in Crystal City). In another aisle were vats of vegetable salad and turkey sandwiches, to be on their way for consumption within hours.

Despite the budget worries, or because of them, the staff is moving ahead with still more initiatives. A new consortium was just launched. It will connect the organization with wholesale food vendors and restaurants; a restaurant will pick a vendor as a partner and, at the beginning of each month, make a pledge with its usual order that the vendor will match. The kitchen will use the money to help offset its own food purchases.

"A partners' buy-cott," Curtin said with typical enthusiasm. "It could literally change how community kitchens work around the country."

Gwendolyn Gilliam mixes salad ingredients at D.C. Central Kitchen on Second Street NW, in the basement of Federal City Shelter. Volunteers Lena Hull, left, and Sally Knudson distribute free coffee and donuts at 19th and E streets NW. For Carlton Townsend, right, it's breakfast. Veronica Villanova, above, a volunteer from Alexandria, pours onions for a stir-fry. Below, Reggie Jones carries food to one of his many stops for D.C. Central Kitchen. An estimated 175,000 residents in the District alone count on food banks, pantries and soup kitchens for what they eat. Robert Egger, president and chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, first conceived of the organization more than 16 years ago. Now, he says, "we can't do this without a strong partnership with the city."Bo Sims is in his 20th month of employment at the kitchen, which trained him to cook. He has risen to assistant chef and weekend supervisor.