Shortly before 2:30 on a recent morning, three members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, bleary-eyed from two hours' sleep, climbed into a battered aqua van for the Jessup run.
Three times a week, they scrounge through dumpsters at the enormous Wholesale Food Center in Howard County and coax wholesalers to donate enough food for the 45 member community, the shelter's soup kitchen that serves 800, and a free-food store.
"Some people are really queasy about jumping in the dumpsters but I love it," said Suzette Rowe, 21, appropriately clad in ripped jeans, grimy green windbreaker and sturdy work boots plucked from donated clothes piled knee-deep in the cellar of CCNV's communal house.
She was joined by Greg Hessel, 21, a recent college graduate who joined CCNV the previous week, and Stephen O'Neil, 34, a former Minnesota farm organizer lured to CCNV last year. O'Neil and his wife Angie Miller, who are expecting their first child, plan to return to the Midwest soon to start a community with eight friends.
The van, one of five aging vehicles CCNV owns, pulled into the market seconds after it opened at 3. Rowe hopped out to work the wholesalers while the men hit the dumpsters, hoping to beat the pig farmer with whom they compete for discarded food.
Approaching a supplier making a sale, she smiled and waited. "The first rule is never interrupt a sale," Rowe said, admiring a glistening row of plump grapefruit. The supplier directed her to a battered 50-pound sack of potatoes that she carried to the edge of the cement platform as several salesmen watched in amusement.
Reaching into a dumpster, she gleefully discovered two dozen bruised green peppers underneath an empty antifreeze jug.
"You take a few chances you're going to die of botulism or something, but we wash everything," she said, tossing the peppers into a box. She considers fastidiousness a wasteful luxury of the middle class; and the people for whom she gathers food might otherwise go hungry.
Next stop is the wholesale fish market where, for health reasons, there is no "dumpstering." O'Neil emerged with a 50-pound box of fresh bluefish and frozen grouper fillets. That done, the trio headed for Silver Spring to pick up 1,000 pieces of day-old pastries from Montgomery Donuts.
Shortly before 7:30 the van, reeking of fish and overripe produce, pulled up behind the Euclid Street house. CCNV members straggled downstairs to check the daily job sheet posted on a dining room bulletin board. Several members sorted through the food in the back yard and then trucked it to nearby Calvary United Methodist Church.
There, 150 people, most of them black and elderly, were lined up for the free-food store that operates five mornings per week. Some, pulling squeaky shopping carts, had arrived at 6 a.m., four hours before the store opens.
The Jessup crew headed for their respective beds and a few hours' sleep. "As an organizer I'm used to hard work," said O'Neil, who is spearheading the drive to pass the homeless referendum on Tuesday's ballot. "But I've never worked as hard as I have this year."