Pop tunes blasted from loudspeakers into the cavernous warehouse at the Maryland Food Bank on Thursday, energizing about 300 volunteers filling 15,000 boxes with holiday staples for the needy.

"You can get exercise, help those who don't have a meal for the holiday, and then there's the whole camaraderie thing with your co-workers," said Gerri Gardner, the liveliest of the CSX railroad's packing team, which included workers from MTA and MARC trains.

This time of year, the bank, which distributes food to about 600 soup kitchens, pantries and shelters across the state from its Halethorpe headquarters, gears up for its own Thanksgiving rush. It will put together traditional dinner items for impoverished families. Since it launched its Elect to End Hunger campaign four years ago, the need has tripled –- from 4,800 boxes to 15,000.

"We could make thousands more and still not fill the need," said Kate Sam, food bank spokeswoman.

Many area companies have encouraged their employees to join the effort. Teams from companies across the metropolitan area reported to the warehouse shortly after 8 a.m. and quickly set up assembly lines. They packed cartons with nonperishable items, including green vegetables, yams and instant mashed potatoes, and made sure there was room for a brownie mix. The filled cartons will be delivered to families, along with the thousands of turkeys chilling in the bank's freezers.

The CSX line was really moving throughout the morning, with constant encouragement from Gardner. She sang along with the booming lyrics and still managed to call "Keep it coming and going!" Her colleague, Beverly Hamlin, said she didn't mind setting aside her tasks at work for a good cause.

"I can give back," she said. "I have a good job, and I have never been hungry. I am fortunate that I don't know what hunger is like. But most of us are only a few paychecks away from where the people who need this handout are today."

The team from Echo, a marketing company in Dundalk, finished their 600 boxes first and gathered to congratulate themselves on breaking a packing record before heading back to their jobs.

"It's a real logistical ballet," said Rob Blakely, Echo's vice president for business development. "It is amazing to see the amount of food that turns over and gets on people's plates. We will be back next year because we know the need will still be here."

In Maryland, about 460,000 residents are deemed "food insecure," or without consistent daily access to food. "These are people who don't know where their next meal is coming from," said Sam.

Of that number, 180,000 are children. In 2011, the food bank stepped up efforts to assist children. It provided about 189,000 after-school dinners to students at 22 sites. The program has expanded to 33 sites and after-school dinners will probably exceed 200,000 this year, Sam said.

The Maryland Food Bank distributed 26 million pounds of food last year in its service area and anticipates a 13 percent increase this year. It would take an estimated 79 million pounds annually to ensure all residents have enough food daily, Sam said.

More crews, including several Oriole spouses and members of the team's management staff, arrived for the second shift to finish the packing The CSX workers were the last to complete the morning shift. Gardner danced out the door with her co-workers, who agreed they had undergone a strenuous workout, before heading back to their desk jobs.

"We run our trains through communities where the people we are helping today live," said Sharon Davoin, who found packing to be a fun and rewarding change from her job as CSX vice president for community affairs. "This is another way to touch the lives of these people. We will know, when we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, that other families will also have a great meal."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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