At noon sharp, the Lord's Prayer is recited to the loud popping accompaniment of percolating coffee. Seconds later, about two dozen metal chairs scrape across the gray painted concrete floor, and the regular Wednesday lunch begins at Coolville, Ohio's haven of last resort.

For the next three hours, scores of people of all ages -- jobless, under-employed, deep in debt and hungry -- step through the orange metal door of the Friends & Neighbors Community Food Center, seeking help that most never dreamed they would need.

They will get a hug from Hazel Life and a kind word from Lisa Roberts -- the two women who run the pantry -- and, on this Wednesday, hot roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, salad and blueberry cake, served on Styrofoam plates.

In this hardscrabble southeastern Ohio village of 528 people, there is such a thing as a free lunch. Just take the sharp turn onto Third Street and head for the Lions Club, where Jeni Brannon rules the kitchen, never knowing on any given Wednesday how many to cook for.

But after nearly 16 months of operation, Life and Roberts do know who will be coming through the door, and when.

The seniors arrive at the beginning of the month because they have spent much of their money on prescription drugs. Large numbers of working families start to show up after the third week of the month because they have run out of money. The number of children soars during the summer because the free school-lunch program ends on the last day of classes.

What they cannot anticipate is the numbers, which keep growing. In January, the pantry served 167 adults, 83 children and 97 households. In March, the numbers jumped to 301 adults, 161 children and 153 households.

"It's going to go up and up and up," said Life, 38, a single mother of three who lost her $19-an-hour job as a hospital systems analyst and now works the cash register at a grocery store for $5.15 an hour. Health insurance for her children, ages 17, 13 and 6, is covered by Medicaid. Life herself has no medical coverage.

"Most of the people here live in trailers, including myself. They're just trying to survive," Life said.

The holes in the state and national social safety nets -- and specifically the people who fell through them -- are on display here every Wednesday, for lunch and waiting for boxes of food and dry goods. Around long folding tables, the dynamic of shared human misery is embraced by the best of community compassion. People exchange stories about their kids, their circumstances and where they can get deals on clothing and food.

Some, such as Julie Smith, 27, struggle to make that last step into the pantry. A single mother of two daughters, she was laid off two months ago from several temporary jobs and is more than two months late on her car payment.

"I thought I would always make it on my own. I have a pride thing -- I don't like to accept things," said Smith, who first came to the pantry in February.

"This bothers me in a way, but I don't care because I have to do it to feed my kids," said Smith, who is hoping a part-time job as a high school janitor becomes full time. She earns $7 an hour and has no health insurance.

Pantries used to be dominated by the elderly, but now more than half the people who show up are working poor. Ruth Dillon came here with her husband, Roger, to celebrate her 61st birthday this month. Ruth had to quit her $5-an-hour job to care for Roger, who had open-heart surgery.

"This is the very last resort for people. They've gone through friends; they've gone through family," Lisa Roberts said. "Once you get them over the hump of coming here, they come back."

Friends & Neighbors, which resembles a church basement with a kitchen and a long, open counter, distributed 42,000 pounds of food last year on a budget of $1,580. That included $20 a month from one local church, $5 from another and $20 from "old Mr. Bibby, whenever he can," Life said.

Some draw comfort beyond the free meal and box of food. Roger Dillon said he has run into old friends at the pantry he has not seen in years.

"We see so many people we know and hadn't seen since we were kids," he said. "I always thought you saw people like that only at funerals."