A hand-painted sign promising "Free Bread" appears every Thursday in front of the Living Hope Church of God on Montgomery Street, offering bags of bread and pastry to anyone, with no questions asked and no strings attached.
The gourmet bread, donated each week by Panera Bread on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie, is provided by the church's Food Pantry, which serves about 30 local families including some members of the homeless community.
Maxine Pineda, of Laurel, runs the pantry with her son, Robert, and said she never questions why anyone needs help.
"If they weren't hurting, they wouldn't be coming," Maxine Pineda said. "If people want to hang around and talk, we listen. The most important thing is to treat our clients with decency and not as a charity."
Church member Felicia Jackson, of Laurel, helps out. "We pray with people, too, when they need prayer," she added.
Regular clients know the drill: If the bread is all they've come for, they serve themselves and leave. Some will stop to chat with Pineda and Jackson, who are usually busy stocking shelves and keeping handwritten inventories. Others sign in to "shop" for nonperishable food items and clothing in a warm family atmosphere.
"I'm a frequent flier," said a coatless gentleman, loading a large bag of pastries March 13 before heading back into the bitter cold.
Darlene Tobin, who lives around the corner in Laurel's downtown historic district, is also a regular. She said she saw the "Free Bread" sign one day and came in to find cupcakes, too.
Tobin signed in on March 13 carrying a bag of clothing to donate (which is never expected). "You have to give to get," she quipped.
Robert Pineda, of Laurel, said he coordinated a food drive at the Giant Food store at Laurel Shopping Center recently and made a point of helping store customers carry their grocery bags.
"It's not just about us taking, we want to help out, too," he said.
"The Pinedas are an answer to prayer," said church pastor the Rev. David Boggs. "Their tireless energy and creativity are helping our local church have a significant impact on the Laurel community."
Boggs delivers the Panera breads to the Food Pantry Thursday mornings. He credits his daughter and son-in-law, Rebecca and Toby Tober, with initiating and maintaining a relationship with the Panera Bread team.
Room to grow
Last March, Maxine and Robert Pineda began storing and distributing food from a walk-in pantry in the church basement. In August, Boggs gave up his Pastor's Conference Room to move the Food Pantry into a larger space. As it continues to grow, Robert Pineda wants to expand the pantry into an offsite location, ideally on Main Street.
He said he hopes to add a soup kitchen (there are no cooking facilities at the Laurel church) and dreams of providing medical and dental assistance to locals as well.
Robert's wife, Jessica Pineda, shops for their family's groceries and for the Pantry at the same time. He said that, with coupons, his wife recently bought and donated 15 boxes of Cheerios that cost just $2 from the Weis Market, and that the family has also purchased special request items like shoes for children.
Many members of the church congregation donate cash, food, and clothing.
Maxine Pineda used donated cash to buy food that she cooked at home and brought in to host a dinner for the homeless at the church last Christmas.
"It was a blessing to see them come in," Robert Pineda said.
Boggs also provides funding as part of his church's benevolence ministry. The Baltimore Food Bank has contributed food twice since the pantry opened, and EGA Process Serving in Laurel makes tax-deductible contributions weekly.
Businesses that can contribute money or coordinate large donations are requested to call Robert Pineda at 301-793-4336. Individuals who can donate food or clothing, and anyone in need of assistance, are invited to stop by the Food Pantry on Thursdays.
Baby items, especially disposable diapers and toiletries, are in particular demand.
Living Hope Church of God is located at 613 Montgomery St. Located in the basement, the Food Pantry is open Thursdays, 9-11 a.m. and 6-8 p.m. For information, call 301-497-6424.