They're everywhere - old, unused keys - and Ralph Greenberg wants to turn them into food.
Greenberg, founder of the fledgling nonprofit Key for Hope, grew up in his father's scrap-metal business, always aware of the value of metal in the many items people toss out.
Several years ago, wanting to do something to alleviate hunger, he decided to start a charity that would allow people to donate money without actually spending money.
His idea was to receive donations of scrap metal that could be sold to buy food for food banks and homeless shelters.
"I saw the paper clip story and it hit me: What about starting with keys?" said Greenberg, referring to children in Whitwell, Tenn., who collected millions of paper clips to commemorate each person killed in the Holocaust.
Greenberg's Key for Hope, incorporated in 2006 in Avon, now administers key drives, much like book drives. So far the nonprofit has set up about 30 sites around the South Shore where people can take their keys.
The campaign reached a high point last month when the founda tion's Keys in the Classroom program collected 31,000 keys from the Avon, Holbrook, Randolph, and Stoughton school systems - enough to donate 5,000 pounds of food to food pantries in those towns.
"Ralph and his son came with a truck and a couple palettes of food, cases and cases of juice, canned goods, mixed food . . . they lugged it in," said Ron DiGuilio, a Catholic lay minister who runs the Randolph food pantry. "It was like gold to us."
Although the price of metals has plummeted in the past six months - the mixed brass that keys are made of has dropped to about 85 cents a pound from $2.20 since August - Greenberg still knows scrap metal to be a deep reservoir of untapped value.
His foundation has also found a partner in Middleborough food distributor Cirelli Foods Inc., which matches the nonprofit dollar for dollar in goods. Additionally, Bruce Balder of Stoughton's International Metal Corp. is giving Key for Hope a good price for its thousands of pounds of keys.
"I estimate that about 400 million keys are thrown away each year," said Greenberg, who owns Technology Management Corp., a scrap-metal business in Avon. Before opening TMC, he owned a company that sold refurbished medical equipment. That business took him to Kenya, China, and Russia, where poverty he saw awakened a desire to help others.
"You only need to listen to Ralph for a few minutes to realize his passion for this program and what it can do for people," said Paul Morrissey, president and chief executive officer of Cirelli's.
With the success of the South Shore key drives, most of which have been in businesses and schools, Greenberg is itching to expand. He dreams about how much food the foundation could give away if corporations or organizations with large networks instituted key drives.
"Just imagine if Gillette Stadium asked everyone to bring one key to a Patriots game," said Greenberg.
That would be 70,000 keys, or 1,400 pounds of mixed metals. With the favorable prices offered by International Metal and matching donations from Cirelli Foods, Greenberg said he could turn that into at least $2,500 of food.
Recently, a friend donated 29 pounds of keys rendered useless when a Boston hospital changed the locks on one floor, confirming what Greenberg already knew.
"They're everywhere. Most police and fire departments have keys to corporate buildings in a town," he said. "Where do they go when the building changes locks? What do large car dealers do with old keys? What about the Boston School system? Their recycling guys are not even talking about metal, they're talking about paper, but metal has much more value."
Greenberg sees Key for Hope expanding into receiving all sorts of valuable junk. He'd like to have school children team up to run recycling drives and employ "the otherwise unemployable" to dismantle donated items and sell the metals in them.
But to expand like that, he needs a board of trustees. So far, he's done it all with the help of family and friends. He's paid for everything himself - the collection bins, the website, the educational materials, and time.
"I want to have every school in the country recycling keys," said Greenberg.
"It could be American kids who make this happen. It's a very simple thing, 'Mommy, Daddy, you got a key?' We could feed a lot of people."
For more information, visit www.keyforhope.org or call 1-800-949-5424.