Massive food recalls combined with a reduction in federal assistance and food industry changes have left food pantries low on non-perishable goods.

"Can your little boy have a piece of candy?" Corwin asks.

Taleasha Morales smiles and nods.

"Yeah, boy!" Robbie says.

The Moraleses are one of about 8,000 Jackson County households that receive emergency food boxes, says Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager for ACCESS Inc., the county's emergency food bank.

Taleasha Morales has four kids who live at home. Robbie, the youngest, is mentally and physically disabled. She stays home to take care of him, she says.

The self-serve food pantry has meant the difference between going hungry and having enough.

"Last week we didn't even have dinner," says Morales. "Then we came and had Thanksgiving."

In addition to the food pantries, local soup kitchens and shelters serve more than 50,000 people each year, and ACCESS distributes more than 380 commodity food boxes each month to low-income seniors in Jackson County, says Yates.

But this year, massive food recalls combined with a reduction in federal assistance and food industry changes have left local pantries low on non-perishable goods.

A food drive that kicks off today can help fill the gap.

Readers of the Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings can help combat hunger by filling the paper grocery bags found in today's editions with non-perishable food items. Also sponsored by ACCESS and Sherm's Thunderbird Markets, the 24th annual "Food for Hope" drive is attempting to raise 25,000 pounds of food and $25,000 in donations through Dec. 31.

Protein-rich foods are high on ACCESS's wish list. These include peanut butter, canned tuna, canned meat and beans.

Basic items such as canned fruits and vegetables, grains and pastas typically make up one-quarter of each food box.

Cash contributions are encouraged because ACCESS can provide 6 pounds of food, or about six meals, for every dollar donated, Yates says.

Edna Nielsen heads toward the checkout area with her cane sitting next to cans of corn, a box of raisins and a frozen leg of lamb.

Nielsen lost her home in July, she says.

"The payments went up so high," Nielsen says.

Robert Hight greets each pre-approved client and weighs his or her groceries with a smile.

A sheet shows the different grocery allotments. A single person is allowed 20 pounds of groceries per trip. A family of four can receive up to 60 pounds.

"The idea is one person can't take a hundred pounds," he says.

Turning to greet the next person in line, Hight flashes his smile.

"You've got a little more coming," Hight says to a woman in line with her son.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, looks at the shelves, then down at the back of her young son's head.

"Can I have a box of cookies?" she quietly asks.

Another volunteer places the cookies in her cart and she maneuvers out the door, making way for another family.

"We'll probably give out about of ton of food today," says Burnadine Bratton, pantry coordinator. "Sometimes we run out of food."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.