It hasn’t been a barrel of laughs lately at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle of Wake County. Money woes, which hit just as the organization was stepping up to a brand-new, well-equipped building in Raleigh, forced IFFS to cut its full-time staff from 36 people to 18 at one point–it’s now back to 20. Those who remain, says Jill Staton Bullard, the executive director and co-founder, “are spread this way and that”–she demonstrates with her hands how the gaps are top to bottom and across the organization too–“and we’re all doing multiple jobs.”

On the other hand, the group’s volunteers number 750 folks who last year donated 38,000 hours to the cause. And the money crunch, though not over, has abated some with the help of contributors big and small. One of the small ones that had the biggest effect on Bullard herself: Residents at Glenwood Towers, the Raleigh Housing Authority’s building for low-income seniors, chipped in to buy IFFS a money order for $148.

So here’s where they’re at: IFFS still needs money, but the laughs are coming back. And on Tuesday, June 6 at the Berkeley Cafe, 217 W. Martin St., Raleigh, you can help supply both at WillJoke4Food, a benefit organized by local comedians who are themselves “starving artists.”

Tickets are $10 and available at the door. The show starts at 8 p.m.

And what is the cause? It’s hard to imagine a better one. IFFS collects perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown away, and turns it into grocery bags and prepared meals for needy people in seven counties.

Where do they get it? From about 200 different donors, but mainly from the big retail and wholesale grocers whose bananas, say, are a little past their golden prime for selling, but that means they’re ready to eat right now.

And who gets the food? It goes out–usually the same day, and most of it within two hours–to more than 100 shelters, soup kitchens, kids’ after-school and summer programs, as well as to low-income seniors and families via programs such as Meals on Wheels, which shares the new building with IFFS.

The building is located between the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus and the State Farmers’ Market in Southwest Raleigh. It was bustling when I visited last Thursday. On the loading dock, a church group from Durham, equipped with its truck and coolers, was picking up supplies for its soup kitchen. Inside, workers in the kitchen were making salmon cakes that would be blast-frozen before delivery. One worker was slicing potatoes–after first paring off the little protrusions that made them unappealing at the grocery. He was making potato salad.

The workers themselves are a story. They’re in a culinary training program for people with developmental or mental-health issues–all except the potato maven, David Chatterton, who graduated from the program last year and was hired by IFFS. The rest will graduate this Friday, and can expect to find jobs in major food-service kitchens like those at N.C. State University and WakeMed, Bullard says, though one of their graduates works at the vaunted Magnolia Grill in Durham and another is an assistant manager in a Harris Teeter grocery store.

Of last year’s 26 graduates, 18 are still working today, Bullard says.

The statistics are impressive: 5 million pounds of food rescued per year; 154,000 meals prepared for homeless and low-income adults and children; 500 grocery bags assembled each week; food delivered in refrigerated trucks to more than 200 different programs.

This should be heaven for Bullard, who started IFFS in 1989 out of her garage in North Raleigh after she and co-founder Maxine Solomon watched a fast-food restaurant throwing out its breakfast sandwiches because it was time for lunch. And it is heaven: The new building has refrigerated storage, a first; and it has fast-freeze equipment, another first; and the aforementioned loading docks are a first. It has classroom space and a first-rate kitchen.

But it also cost $3.3 million, a price Bullard says the organization was ready to handle when it moved in 18 months ago. But in short order, it lost an $80,000 client when Wake County decided to bid out the food-preparation contract for its homeless shelters, and IFFS didn’t win it; and then gasoline prices spiked, driving up the cost of basic food collection and distribution work; and then Katrina hit, on top of the earlier South Asia tsunami, and “donor fatigue” became a factor–while gas prices went even higher.

So IFFS has struggled, but as Bullard says, “it’s been a faith walk, and it always has been,” and not just for her, but for the volunteers who come from various churches, synagogues, temples and, yes, a couple of agnostics and at least one avowed atheist have also put their time in to help feed the hungry. They do it, Bullard says, because “every major world religion, whatever it is, says to take care of each other. And that’s what we do.”

Bullard, incidentally, has done what nonprofit leaders ought to, and established a succession plan. She’s going to step down at the end of 2008 and turn the reins over to vice president David Reese, whom she hired away from Urban Ministries of Raleigh and put in charge of all food distribution.

But before she does, she’d love to see one more part of the dream come true. There’s a small bungalow house across the street from IFFS, at the rear of the Dix campus–and indeed, on the highest ground at Dix, with a spectacular view of the Raleigh skyline. IFFS has leased it, and plans to turn it into The Cafe on the Hill, a restaurant staffed by graduates of its culinary training program.

If and when Dix, a psychiatric facility, is turned into a park, what better complement could it have than a cafe run by persons who are coping with their mental illnesses? Bullard asks. And what better homage to Dorothea Dix, the reformer who believed in the therapeutic qualities of the outdoors, than to set it in a cottage high on Dix Hill–with an outdoor deck attached?

Unfortunately, though, post-Katrina, the estimated price tag for wrapping the leaded paint-clad bungalow in new siding has gone from $130,000 to $200,000, and that’s money IFFS doesn’t have. Not yet, anyway. “It makes me weep, it hurts so much,” Bullard says.

But walking around the old house, on a blue-sky day, she’s sure it will happen, and it will be great. And that’s no laugh at all, but it is reason to smile.

WillJoke4Food features John Champion and Jermando Jones. Catch a peek at