Wednesday is delivery day for the Greater Boston Food Bank, and volunteers from pantries around the region start arriving at the loading docks of Rich’s Transportation at 9:30 a.m. for a share of the thousands of pounds of produce, frozen meats, and nonperishable items that will help feed their needy for another week.
Over the next five hours, the volunteers stream through the Taunton facility in whatever wheels they can find — pickups, U-Hauls, moving vans, even school buses — knowing that they have just 15 to 20 minutes to check the weekly order, load it, and get out of the way before the next client rolls in.
“Today is actually a light day,’’ Gary Crist, the food bank manager who keeps the human assembly line moving, said on a recent Wednesday, as 55,000 pounds of food changed hands. “We’ve been averaging over 60,000.”
Though the haul was below average that day, the demand for food assistance has sharply increased in the region since spring, and, starting in August, these distribution days will increase to four times a month from three.
“In March and April, we averaged over 80,000 pounds a week and had to add a third truck,’’ Crist said. The organization knew it had to step up its deliveries.
More and more Americans are becoming “food insecure,’’ Crist said, a buzz phrase for the growing level of hunger that is reaching well into the middle class.
The national poverty level is about $23,000 a year, but if a family of four in the Boston area wants to have three meals a day and pay bills, it means having to earn at least $74,000, Crist says. “That’s what we call the meal gap. People ask, ‘Do I pay the electric bill, the heating bill, or do I buy food?’ ”
The Greater Boston Food Bank works closely with more than 540 hunger relief agencies in 190 Eastern Massachusetts communities and conducts a variety of programs, such as filling backpacks so children who depend on free school breakfast and lunch programs do not go hungry during weekends and vacations.
Rich’s Transportation in Taunton is one of the food bank’s five distribution points, and serves 42 communities in Bristol, Plymouth, and Norfolk counties.
The need is certainly felt in Mansfield, said Debbie Chambers, who with her son Ryan, a recent graduate of Merrimack College, and Alan and Maddie McKenna, volunteers at Our Daily Bread, a pantry based at the Congregational Church of Mansfield.
They regularly pull up to the loading dock in a horse trailer donated by Jeff Gordon of Norton. The group has a 10 a.m. appointment to stock the pantry, where they distribute at least four bags of groceries each to an average of 107 clients each week. Over the course of a year, Our Daily Bread offers sustenance to a total of 141 individuals and 319 families.
Last year, 124 new families began using the pantry, said Chambers, but there is no one demographic to describe those in need.
“We see young people, families, and those in middle age,’’ she said. “Today I walked into the pantry, and the shelves were empty. This will help fill it.”
While Chambers spoke, former Bridgewater police chief Bill Ferioli, his brother Tom Ferioli, and other men from the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish backed a borrowed cemetery truck into the dock. Their own vehicle, they said, had lost its brakes just hours before.
They will drive whatever it takes to get the weekly infusion of food that is all the church pantry has after its other vendors pulled out, Tom Ferioli said.
Later, other pantries like Love in Action from Central Baptist Church in Middleborough and the food pantry and soup kitchen of St. Anthony’s of Padua in New Bedford arrived for their weekly allotment of food that is separated and stacked by Juan Encarnacion of Brockton, a 21-year food bank employee.
Encarnacion not only drives the tractor-trailers of food to the regional distribution point, he then hops aboard a forklift and zooms the length of the huge warehouse filling the orders he neatly piles by the appropriate dock door.
During a brief break between loads, Encarnacion, the food bank’s longest-tenured employee, said he loves his work, mainly because it is his personal ministry.
Next to arrive were Foxborough food pantry volunteers Pam Frietas and Kelly Ryan, who came with Dick Davis and Bob Motta of the Foxborough Lions Club to pick up food for the Neponset Street facility. It is supported by the town’s discretionary fund, in space donated by the local office of Invensys PLC.
The Foxborough pantry feeds 200 to 250 families twice a month, a number that has tripled over six or seven years, Freitas said. It also operates a school lunch program, providing juice boxes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hungry local children.
Rich’s chief executive officer, John Sullivan, arrived just as the Foxborough group was leaving. He said that his company has been providing the free space to the food bank for several years and that the fact that Wednesday is a slow day makes it feasible.
“People have to eat, right?” Sullivan said. “This saves them a lot of time and effort. We think it’s great that we can help in this way.”
In 2011, the regional bank based in Boston distributed 38 million pounds of food, which it obtains with state and federal funds, cooperative purchase programs, and through private donations and local food drives.
This year’s goal was 40 million pounds, Crist said, but the number will reach about 41 million pounds.
“We are setting records every year,” he said.
Any and all help is welcome to get food where it is needed, food bank staff agreed, including Crist, who pointed out that the organization’s new branding campaign is based on the slogan “Hunger Hurts.”
“People don’t realize it,’’ he said, “but their neighbors are hungry.’’