The crowd begins gathering outside the gym door just before 9 o'clock each Saturday morning -- men and women, old and young, some with children at their sides. Nearly every person is armed with a pull cart or empty bags.
The Manna Ministry, as it is called at Christ Community Church of the Nazarene in Concord, has been providing food for the needy for seven years. Upward of 100 families are greeted at the sign-in table each week by church volunteers.
"Most places you have to show an ID and proof of income," said team leader Lynne Bradford. "We just ask for their first name and the number of people in their family."
Then, on a first-come, first-served basis, recipients form an orderly line and help themselves to neatly sorted grocery items -- loaves of bread, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, dairy products and desserts -- before being handed a bag filled with dry goods such as coffee, cereal and crackers.
About 50 volunteers donate their time to organize this effort, which is made possible largely through donations from Trader Joe's stores in Danville and Concord. Food also comes from the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano counties and Hope 4 the Heart, in Hayward.
Director Jim Hulshof said the program began almost by accident: "One of our church board members got a call from a friend who knew somebody at the Trader Joe's in Danville, saying they had some food to donate, and asked, 'Do you want to pick it
The first impromptu giveaway was at nearby Ellis Lake Park. Soon, the program moved to church grounds, where it became a weekly ritual.
"At first, it was just one other woman and me," said Linda Lucido, the program's past director. "We sat in the kitchen, got a delivery from Trader Joe's in Danville on Saturday morning and told people to take whatever they wanted. It just kept growing to where we started setting up in the parking lot.
"Eventually, we grew to where there were so many people -- plus it was rainy and cold in the winter -- that we opened the gym and started doing it in here."
Four teams of volunteers -- eight to 10 per team -- staff the operation on rotating weeks. Other volunteers pick up and deliver the donated food items, many of which are nearing their sales expiration dates. The bounty has become so plentiful that organizers now need six refrigeration units.
The program has never been advertised. Recipients learn about it by word-of-mouth. Lucido says she sees new faces each week and a lot of regulars.
"We get elderly people who need help," she said. "We get young couples, or young women who have been abandoned and left with children. Some are people who have lost their jobs."
No one is required to show need. They need only to show up.
"We know we'll get scammed sometimes, but that's not our worry," Hulshof said. "That's between them and the Lord. We're here to provide them with food."
For the holidays, they provide even more than that. At the annual Christmas party, children are given toys donated by church members. Families are given the fixings for turkey dinners. About 150 families attended this year.
"It's a ministry we're very proud of," Hulshof said.
They should be.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.