When Charles F. Myers tries to tell his Hampden neighbors how to get $35 worth of food for $13, they want to know one thing: What's the catch?
People are asking the same question in West Baltimore, Brooklyn, Catonsville and other metropolitan neighborhoods as an unusual food co-op opens this week in a Linthicum warehouse.
Because these are primarily church members, they have no problem accepting the loaves-and-fishes miracle. But they can't quite believe they can get food -- good food, real food, just-like-at-the-Giant food -- for 60 percent off retail grocery prices, payable in advance, using cash or food stamps.
They're even more dubious when they hear they don't have to be poor to qualify. All they have to do is volunteer two hours of their time to community service each month. The definition of volunteerism is so lenient that talking on the telephone to a shut-in is sufficient.
"The uniqueness of this program is it's not just for the needy, it's for everybody," Mr. Myers said. "The only problem so far is skepticism."
Tomorrow, about 530 trusting types, recruited by enthusiastic volunteers such as Mr. Myers, will participate in the first monthly distribution of groceries through Share-Baltimore, the newest link a 22-city anti-hunger network nationwide.
For $13, participants this month will receive 18 items, including chicken, turkey, ground turkey, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, apples, bananas, peaches, frozen French fries and a Sara Lee coffeecake.
In other months, they may get a different variety of items.
Share (an acronym for Self-Help and Resource Exchange) started in San Diego in the early 1980s and quickly spread across the country. While the concept owes something to the food co-ops of the 1960s, in which people lowered their grocery prices by contributing labor, Share's ambitions go beyond cost savings.
Share organizers see thousands of volunteers, organized by ZIP code, meeting to determine the needs in their own communities. That reality is perhaps 18 months away for Share-Baltimore, said Director Peggy Cronyn, who hopes the project will have 12,000 clients by then.
That's the break-even point for the local affiliate.
More than 50 volunteers came from throughout Baltimore this week to help prepare for the first distribution.
There was Mr. Myers, a retired oil burner mechanic, sitting at a long table with women from St. Martin's Church in West Baltimore, cutting and tying strips of red mesh to hold the pounds of onions and potatoes.
"There's nobody who can't do two hours a month," said Mr. Myers, 65 and breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. "If you can sit up, you can volunteer."
For those homebound, said Dorothy C. Wilson of St. Martin's, there is the option of having a "proxy" volunteer. She was at the Share warehouse for someone else.
"Everyone out there needs a break on grocery prices," she said.
How to sign up for Share
Where to call: If you are interested in joining the Share-Baltimore program, call 636-9615 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
How it works: If you're interested in joining an existing group, you will be matched with the program closest to your address.
Starting up: To start your own group,you have to be working with a church or synagogue, Head Start center, community association, senior center, school or union. After the initial inquiry, Share will set up a training program. A group needs at least four volunteers to coordinate the program.
Volunteering: If you are already a community volunteer, your existing activities can count toward the two hours a month required by Share. Those not involved in community service can solicit ideas from their group or can volunteer at Share.