With thousands of hungry individuals and families seeking food, it doesn't take long for the cupboards to become bare at the Salt Lake Food Bank.

About 31/2 tons of food and other products are distributed every day by the bank, a Community Services Council program. Thousands of individuals, families and Utah businesses have responded to pleas for support in food drives, with their efforts replenishing supplies. But it doesn't take long for them to diminish.One of the businesses, Smith's Food and Drug, recently provided its fourth shipment of damaged food and other products to the food bank warehouse. The goods had a retail value of more than $102,000 before becoming unsalable.

Since October, Smith's has contributed food and other products valued at $741,958, according to Richard K. Winters, executive director of the Community Services Council. Smith's makes a shipment after each of its 12 accounting periods during the year.

Winters said the chain is the only large food distributor in Utah that has a complete product recovery program, a project that is under way in other parts of the country. The program was introduced in Utah by the Farmer Jack organization when the firm purchased and briefly operated Safeway stores.

Norman C. Dinsdale, directed the recovery program for Farmer Jack and is now directing the Smith's project.

"Our stores ship any damaged, stained or dented goods back to our warehouse. We process them there, then ship them out to people who can benefit from them," Dinsdale said.

If, for example, a can of tomato juice is broken open during shipment and juice is sprayed over other cans they become unappealing to customers. The cans are delivered to the product recovery center at the Freeport Center in Clearfield. There the cans or other items are run through computer scanners similar to those at grocery check-out stands and prepared for delivery to the food bank and other community organizations.

The latter include Foster Grandparent programs, rehabilitation centers, animal shelters and church groups. The food bank also serves organizations such as the Salvation Army, individuals and families at the homeless shelter, the Rescue Mission and Crossroads Urban Center.

Besides its humanitarian appeal, the product recovery program makes sense for Smith's from a business standpoint. Manufacturers will pay up to 80 percent of the original cost of damaged goods, if a claim is properly documented and supported by accounting records.

That's where a sophisticated computer accounting program comes in handy. A computer system from Processors Unlimited Corp. has been used to establish 90 other centers like Smith's Clearfield operation.

The range of goods processed through the recovery operation covers everything found in grocery stores, except produce and other perishables.

On any given day, products like macaroni, paper towels, sugar, cereal, spices, canned fruits and vegetables and cleaning supplies are found in the Clearfield center.

After processing, the goods are placed in sturdy banana boxes and trucked to a large warehouse at 1601 Industrial Road that was donated to the food bank by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There the food and other materials are sorted by volunteers. Anything damaged in such a way that it wouldn't meet Health Department standards for human consumption is reviewed for animal food, with hopelessly damaged products being discarded.

A social services volunteer for many years before his appointment to direct the council, Winters said he hopes other food distributors will become interested in systems like Smith's.

"We see it as a model for what others can do to channel products to those in need. If we can recover the value of the damaged products and deliver them to the needy, we will prevent waste and take a big bite out of hunger. We view this program as a model for others to follow," Winters added.