Three-year-old Keaton tightly grasped a plastic grocery bag full of toys a volunteer had given him while he and his mother waited at a food pantry in Rogue River to receive a few days supply of food.

Three-year-old Keaton tightly grasped a plastic grocery bag full of toys a volunteer had given him while he and his mother waited at a food pantry in Rogue River to receive a few days supply of food.

Jill Dean, 39, the mother of three children — Keaton and two teenage daughters — said that after losing her job at a deli a year ago she has visited the food pantry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about once a month.

Dean's family is among the many who could benefit from this year's Food for Hope, the 26th annual edition of a food drive and fundraiser sponsored by the Daily Tidings, ACCESS, Inc., Sherm's Thunderbird Markets and the Mail Tribune. Readers will find a grocery bag inserted in today's edition of the Daily Tidings, which they can fill with non-perishable food items to help put "Hunger in the Bag."

Since she lost her house to foreclosure about two years ago, Dean and her three children have moved around the valley, from Medford to Grants Pass, Merlin and Prospect — wherever they could find housing.

Dean said she receives about $600 per month in food stamps, but the food often runs out before the end of the month.

"I use this to supplement one of those weeks," she said as she looked at a large box of food being prepared for her.

"It's hard to come in here. It's like an admission that you're not able to support your family."

In the pantry, three volunteers carefully selected food staples and filled a large box for the family that included corn bread mix, cheese, canned fruit and vegetables, six eggs, bread and other odds and ends.

"Places like these are really important because people are struggling more than they ever have," Dean said.

Each emergency food box contains a three-to-five-day supply of food for a family of three. And the boxes have been going out faster than ever, according to ACCESS, Inc., which has seen an 8 percent increase in demand this year at its food pantries.

Each week ACCESS hands out about 50,000 pounds of food, which amounts to 3,200 boxes a month. About 15 percent of the people ACCESS provides food boxes for are seniors, and about 60 percent are families. About 38 percent of the families are children.

ACCESS is the designated community action agency for Jackson County and is part of the Oregon Food Bank Network. The agency provides a variety of services for low-income people and families, including assistance with housing, heating and food. In the current tough economic times, it's become a harder job to fill the shelves at its 22 food pantries in the county.

"We have enough resources to offer a family one food box a month or 12 times a year," said Philip Yates, the nutrition programs director for ACCESS. "Even 12 times is not enough for a lot of families. They struggle month to month and week to week."

Yates said there tends to be a higher need for food in rural areas like Rogue River, Gold Hill and Butte Falls where there are fewer resources. He said demand often spikes in January after families have over-extended themselves during the holidays and come up short up in the following months.

"When you look at your expenses — medical, utilities, rent — generally families cut the amount of food they eat," he said.

The goal of this year's Food for Hope drive is to raise 30,000 pounds of food and $37,000 by the end of December. Yates said the campaign will put out about 55,000 brown bags this year for people to fill with food, but also will rely on cash donations to meet the need.

"We can translate every dollar into about five pounds of food," Yates said.

Last year, ACCESS exceeded its Food for Hope goal by raising more than 29,400 pounds of food and $37,526.

For those who want to fill food bags, ACCESS especially needs protein-rich foods such as peanut butter, canned tuna, canned meats and beans. Yates said ACCESS hopes to fill about a quarter of each food box with protein-rich foods.

"Protein items are the ones that appear less because they are often more expensive," he said.

Basic non-perishable items such rice, pasta, cereals and canned fruits also are needed.

Ashland readers can fill the grocery bags and drop them off at any city fire station or the Ashland branch of Umpqua Bank, 250 N. Pioneer St., Ashland. Donations are also being accepted at any fire station or Umpqua Bank branch elsewhere in the county. Donations may be mailed to ACCESS Food for Hope, P.O. Box 4666, Medford, OR 97501.

Families interested in receiving an emergency food box can call ACCESS' Nutrition Foods Program at 779-6691 to find the nearest food pantry.