Seasoned hands call it "Hell Week" at Bread for the City. It is Thanksgiving week, when a line of people wraps around a modest, two-story row house in Northwest Washington where the District's largest private provider of food for the poor gives away turkeys.

Tempers are frayed. The police are on standby. About 350 frozen turkeys and roasters are given away, though twice as many people stand grumbling in line.

"They will beg, they will threaten, they will cry, but no one gets a turkey who is not on this list," said the Rev. Charles Parker, the center's director, waving a typed list of the names of the people who signed up first-come, first-served. Parker calls the list "the Bible."

This is the season that tests the efficiency and blood pressure levels of the volunteers at Bread for the City. Like hundreds of other volunteers throughout the Washington region, they are dog-tired but still smiling by the end of what one of them calls "turkey madness."

There is a method in this madness.

It involves compassion and sternness, food soliciting and budgeting, packing and hauling weeks and even months before Thanksgiving.

This year more than ever, the clamor for free food is growing louder, according to food providers who work in church basements, soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the area.

"It has gotten worse," said Nikki Lagoudakis, executive director of D.C. Hunger Action, an advocacy and information clearinghouse. "We're getting more calls from people."

There was a 43 percent increase in the demand for emergency food in the District in 1989, according to a 27-city report on hunger and homelessness by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, food providers report a rise in demand as well.

"It's not slowing down any," said Charles Heiden, director of the emergency assistance program for Catholic Charities, which serves Northern Virginia.

"It's absolutely gone up," said Eileen Gillan, a spokesman for Maryland Food Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides grants to soup kitchens and pantries throughout the state. "They're seeing a lot of new faces, people who have never been to a soup kitchen or pantry before."

Some blame the increased demand on the falling economy and unemployment. No one knows for sure. But it has translated into more hungry people calling food pantries; soup kitchens drying up their financial resources and telephone hot lines flooded with requests for free meals.

Every day in the Washington area, tens of thousands of free meals are given to the needy through nongovernmental agencies, food providers estimate.

The increased demand for food has sapped the monthly food budget at Bread for the City, one of 220 food providers in the District, where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. The agency had less money left to buy turkeys this year.

"The need is absolutely breathtaking," said Parker, 29, director of the center, which mostly receives its $630,000 budget from individual contributions, grants and gifts from religious groups. "In terms of the money coming in, the need so greatly exceeds it that we're only able to touch the tip of the iceberg."

For the volunteers on the front lines of the war against hunger, the increased demand provides a special challenge. It means more patience, more hard work.

"We're not the smartest people in the world," said Patrick Comedy, the director for the Christian Action Center, which gives food to 2,000 needy people in Northwest. "I'm sure that somebody could come in and do it better than we're doing, with more creativity, more wisdom and foresight. But I know we are doing the best we can do and when we go home and put our heads on the pillows, we feel we did the best we could do."

Volunteers' efforts are appreciated by people such as Laura Hagood, a 72-year-old widow who stood outdoors for three hours Tuesday to be first in line for a free turkey at Bread for the City.

"They don't push you around because you're old or because you're hungry," said Hagood, who carted off a grocery bag filled with a turkey, stuffing mix, canned sliced carrots, cranberry sauce, green beans and rice.

It was a special trip for Hagood, who gets a $428 monthly social security check and relies on Bread for the City each month for a grocery bag stuffed with three days worth of food.

The groceries help get her through the lean days when her government check does not go far enough. She said she is particularly fond of the Quaker Oat Bran cereal, which she eats every morning with sugar and a little milk.

The cereal, like most items found in her grocery bag, got there on a circuitous route that is lined with dedicated volunteers and goodwill.

That chain began in July when managers of a Quaker Oats distribution center in Shiremantown, Pa., discovered that their warehouse had a surplus of oat bran cereal. They contacted Second Harvest, a national network of food banks in Chicago, which allocated five truckloads of the donated cereal to the Capital Area Community Food Bank. The food bank is a vast warehouse off of Bladensburg Road in Northeast that supplies about 5 percent of Bread for the City's food.

The Capital Area Community Food Bank gets half of its donated food from the local Giant and Safeway food chains and the rest from food drives, distributors and straight from factories. The food bank supplies donated groceries to 700 feeding programs in the Washington area, including shelters, soup kitchens and senior citizen centers.

Inside the 33,000-square-foot warehouse, amid mountains of canned goods and roaring forklifts, volunteers sift through food items on almost every day of the year. They discard food and damaged packages that look unsafe and sort the others into categories so they can be organized on warehouse shelves.

One day, the volunteers were members of the football team from Catholic University. Another day, they were IBM employees, ministers' wives, and disabled children. In a typical three-hour session, a volunteer sorts through about 1,200 pounds of food, enough for about 800 meals.

Then along comes the volunteers from Bread for the City, who spot a food product such as the Oat Bran cereal on the food bank's inventory list. They cart away several cases of the cereal, paying no more than 14 cents a pound, a small contribution to help the food bank pay its bills.

"It's not one individual or personality," said Peter Lassen, food solicitor at the food bank, of the region's effort to feed the needy. "It's a lot of people. It's people who care about their community."

In the Bread for the City row house volunteers have given food to the needy for 14 years. The volunteers are no starry-eyed optimists. A few have been down and out themselves.

Parker, the director, is the only ordained minister there, but he said the volunteers feel called as well. "I think everyone on the staff would tell you they are doing ministry," Parker said. "They all come here with a deep sense of mission."