CANNON BEACH - It may not seem likely that, in a town with a national reputation for tourist-filled beaches, luxury hotels and gourmet dining, anyone could go hungry, but in Cannon Beach being hungry is a reality for many residents.

About half of the children attending Cannon Beach Elementary School receive federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches on school days but not on weekends. In addition, at least 40 to 80 families receive food boxes from area food pantries every month, according to figures from the Clatsop Community Action Agency.

Call it coincidence or serendipity, two citizen groups have simultaneously started projects to reduce hunger. A children's "backpack" program, designed to put food in the backpacks of students who might need weekend meals, will begin Friday, and a Cannon Beach food pantry is expected to open in March.

In Marty Harris's dining room in Tolovana Park, cans and packages of food are being collected daily. A small committee of volunteers is sorting through the food and preparing it for distribution Friday.

The idea took root the night of Barack Obama's election to the presidency. He urged his supporters to serve their communities.

"That week I kept thinking, 'Yes we can, but we are a bunch of individuals, so what are we going to do?'" Harris recalled.

Researching ideas

After hearing discussions at a few City Council meetings about the need to feed local grade school students, Harris organized her neighbors and contacted Rosemary Kemper-Riddock, principal of Cannon Beach Elementary School. They researched similar "backpack" programs in Oregon and elsewhere and customized their own for Cannon Beach. This is the first such ongoing program in Clatsop County, Harris said.

Beginning Friday, students whose parents have agreed to participate will pick up backpacks at school stocked with enough food to give each child two breakfasts and two lunches for the weekend. Foods on the group's list include bread or tortillas, tuna, pudding cups, fruit cups, no- or low-sugar cereals, milk boxes, fruit juice boxes, pancake mix and syrup packets, instant oatmeal packets, tomato soup, crackers, string cheese, protein bars, apples and oranges, among other items. The backpacks will be restocked every Friday until school ends in June.

About 20 children will be served at first, but Harris expects the number will increase; any child attending the school can participate, she said. Eventually, the group would like to expand the program to include middle and high school students from the Cannon Beach attendance area.

A food list will be attached to each backpack, and parents will be asked to check the foods they don't want or that their children are allergic to.

As much as possible, confidentiality will be honored, Harris said. Volunteers packing the bags won't know the children's names; only the person matching a specific backpack with the child will know who the participants are.

If families receiving food in the backpack program are receiving other financial assistance, they won't be penalized, Harris said.

"What we need to do is reassure them that this is not being measured against anything else they are receiving," she added. "This is something you have a right to do, regardless of any resources you may be taking advantage of."

Help needed

While Harris and other members of the group have bought food to jump-start the program, they are seeking volunteers and donations. Based on a similar program in Lincoln City, the estimated cost is about $15 per child per weekend. Volunteers also are needed for tasks ranging from picking up food and delivering filled backpacks to the school, to bookkeeping and writing thank-you letters. Graphic artists who want to volunteer time also are being sought to produce posters, a logo and letterhead.

Until the group organizes a 501(c)3 organization or partners up with another nonprofit group, donors can send their tax-deductible contributions via a check made out to the city of Cannon Beach. Checks should be noted that the donation goes to the "Backpack Food Program."

For questions, call Harris at 503-475-0919 or write to her at marty.harris@att.net. Checks can be mailed to Harris at PO Box 1452, Cannon Beach, OR. 97110 or City Manager Rich Mays, P.O. Box 368, Cannon Beach, OR 97110. They will be deposited at U.S. Bank.

Pantry project

Meanwhile, another group of residents is working diligently to create and open a food pantry in March. The pantry eventually will enable Harris to move the food she is collecting in her dining room to the Cannon Beach Bible Church, where the pantry will be established. The backpack program and food pantry will share space there.

Spearheaded by City Councilor Nancy Giasson, the food pantry has been several years in the making. Previous attempts were thwarted by the lack of space to store food and the shortage of volunteers to operate it.

But when the Cannon Beach Bible Church leaders offered storage space in their building recently, the major hurdle disappeared. At least 28 volunteers formed teams to handle various aspects of the project, including the paperwork, facility preparation and food collection. Three Seaside High School students are working on it as their Pacifica project and have already collected $120 in donations through a raffle at the high school.

"This is a community effort in the nicest sense," Giasson said. "It's hard to describe the enthusiasm."

Good timing

The food pantry couldn't have come at a better time for Cannon Beach families and for Clatsop County, said Marlin Martin, food program developer for the Clatsop Community Action Regional Food Bank. The county is experiencing the second-highest increase in demand in Oregon for emergency food boxes, Marlin said. "We have a serious problem in Clatsop County."

From July 1 to Sept. 30, 2008, the demand in the county rose by 40 percent over the same period in 2007; only the Southeast Oregon Regional Food Bank, which covers Malheur and Harney counties, had a higher demand, at 43 percent, Marlin said.

From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, the demand was 41 percent higher than 2007 in Clatsop County. In 2007, at least 3,134 boxes were distributed during that three-month period; the number rose to 4,421 in 2008.

"I'm almost afraid to see what it will be during this quarter," Marlin said.

Progress already

It has been only two weeks since the volunteers first gathered in the fellowship room at the Community Presbyterian Church to discuss creating a pantry, but much has been done, Giasson said. A pantry, which distributes food locally, is different from a food bank, which, like the Clatsop County food bank, oversees and distributes food to many pantries within a region.

Initially, the Cannon Beach pantry will be sponsored and administered by the Community Presbyterian Church. Efforts to develop a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization are under way; the organization eventually will act as the umbrella for all of the city's food-based groups, including the farmers market, the backpack program, food pantry and, possibly, community gardens.

A volunteer manager is being sought to operate the pantry. The position could be shared by two or three people, Giasson said.

Other donations are being sought as well: heavy duty shelving, folding tables, lockable and portable filing cabinets, 55-gallon barrels that will be put in local businesses to collect food and canning jars to place on business counters to collect money. Contact Giasson, at (503) 436-1222, for more information.

The pantry has $10,000 to begin with; most of the funding comes from the county food bank, which set aside a portion of annual grants the city has given to the food bank. Marlin said establishing a Cannon Beach pantry had been a priority for the food bank.

Money also will come from the Presbyterian church, which will transfer $1,200 the church usually donates to the South County Food Bank in Seaside to the Cannon Beach pantry.

Food is biggest expense

The pantry's largest expense will be for food. The pantry must buy or collect donations for all of the food it distributes. The food bank can sell it to the pantry from its Astoria warehouse at a reduced cost, but the food bank doesn't give free food to its pantries.

Giasson said she doesn't know how often the pantry will be open. It may be once a month until the volunteers are confident they have a system in place and enough food to give out.

"We're going to start small and be effective quickly and then grow from there," Giasson said. "We're going to make sure this is done right.

"We're so grateful and thankful for all the volunteers who have come forward," she added. "Cannon Beach is a wonderful place; neighbors are always helping neighbors."

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