What's better than putting those creative juices to work, having some fun and at the same time helping folks in need? In short, that's what the participants in the Seaside Canned Castle Contest are all about.

What is a Canned Castle? It isn't a castle in a can, but rather a castle made from cans - more accurately, structures imagineered and built out of canned foods and packaged dry foods.

Why? The food used to build these palaces of chow go to the South County Food Bank in Seaside to help those in need. And best of all, you and yours can go see the results of this canny construction collection, listen to some live music and even participate in a silent auction, all for a measly buck a head! Is this a fun, feel-good thing to do or what?

The Canned Castles are sponsored by the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District, and the silent auction in co-sponsorship with Seaside Providence Hospital.

I asked Darrin Gooch of the SEPRD how the idea to do this came about. "Originally, the idea came out of one of our staff meetings. We had been talking about wanting to put together a team to build a sand castle in Cannon Beach. We're an artistic group and we wanted to do something that showed off our creativity. Our Human Resources and Recreation manager Mike Marshall said we should build something different like a canned castle. We got to talking about it, did some research and developed the idea. The community is really behind this and there was a phenomenal turnout for something that had only been mildly publicized. From the point of conception to the actual event was less than a month so we didn't have a lot of preparation time. We started small with only five teams but still we raised 5,000 pounds of food for the food bank. Those who participated just had a fantastic time putting them together."

One of those participants was Mike Hinton, a local contractor. Hinton is very involved in the Seaside community and particularly interested in the work of the Park and Recreation District. "I was asked to form a team and we got some sponsors so we could get cash to buy food to build our castle. Our team got about $1,000 in cash donations and with that money we went to Cash and Carry, Costco and Safeway, talked with them and got additional discounts. We even had cash left over so we gave the food bank the leftover cash plus almost a ton of food."

Hinton has a master's degree in art, but you don't need a degree, only an interest in coming up with an idea, having a good time building and an urge to help people if you want to participate. Hinton recalled his experience: "Our footprint for the castle was a Celtic labyrinth, an ancient Celtic design, and we just started laying it up, designing it as we went. Some people thought it looked like the Taj Mahal. It's a lot of fun. I believe what the Park and Recreation District does for the community and kids is really significant and there is a real need. A lot of hunger and poverty exist, especially now with our current economic climate. I think events like this are important to get people to pay attention to food nutrition and raise food and cash for the food bank. It's a fun and necessary thing to do."

Mike Hinton, director of "Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District Our Foundation," directs Leanne Fawkes, an SEPRD recreation leader, in the placement of a box of canned food during last year's Canned Castle Contest. Photo by Alex Pajunas.Another participant was Kel Toomb of Providence Seaside Hospital. With seed money from their Marketing and Public Relations budget to buy food, Toomb and his team did something a little unusual, "We did a food pyramid because we are a health facility: grains at the bottom, oil at the top. We thought that was a fun way to express what we are about. We had a great time with it last year. It's a fun thing to do that also supports our mission of caring for the poor and vulnerable. We regularly do food drives - the last one generated 2,000 pounds of food, and our staff is pretty tuned in to the need of the community because we see so much need, so this is a good fit." Such a good fit that they decided to partner in the silent auction. Money raised from the auction will provide Park and Recreation District scholarships, help complete the funding for some vital hospital equipment that benefits the community, and go toward the hospital's Charity Care program to help the uninsured get medical care.

Providence Seaside Hospital's team originally wanted to build their "Food Pyramid" vertically, but found during the building process that all the lighter materials were at the bottom and the heavy items had to be on top. They retooled it and came up with the horizontal pyramid pictured. Photo courtesy Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District.This year, the Canned Castles event will follow the same format as last year, except they're trying to get more builders and they have several new teams interested. However, Gooch emphasizes that while they want people to come see the Canned Castles and participate in the silent auction, anyone can come and build. "There is still a lot of room for folks to come in and build something. It doesn't have to be a huge something - participation is what is important. Just bring in some canned and/or packaged food and build what you are able. You can get involved even now. Last year one group came in two days before and built. So we invite the public to come down and create something."

The Best Western Ocean View Resort's sculpture had real "castle" qualities to it, including Roman arches for the entryway. Photo courtesy Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District.This is one of those events that brings the community together and lets people have a good time whether they are viewing or building, and helps those in need at the same time. Hinton summed it up best: "Fighting hunger is the first step toward wellness."

Observers inspect the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District's Our Foundation castle, with its design based on a Celtic labyrinth. Photo by Alex Pajunas.Ellie Esau, center, 10, of Tigard, joins her brother Timmy, left, 5, and sister, Annika, 9, in constructing their own individual canned castles. Photo by Alex Pajunas.