Though school was out for the weekend, Girl Scouts all over Utah took a course in compassion Saturday as they collected thousands of cans, boxes and bottles of food for the poor.

An estimated 6,000 girls took part in the annual "Can-Do" food drive, providing much-needed replenishment for food-pantry shelves around Utah. Troops in the Salt Lake area delivered their collection to the offices of Utahns Against Hunger, where volunteers from the Salt Lake City Lions Club unloaded the food for sorting. As partners in the project, Lions Club members also collected several hundred food items.Organizer Helen Harvey said she expected the Scouts to at least match last year's total of 8,000 items.

"This is the second year we've done this on a statewide basis. It got started seven years ago, when my son was working on his Eagle project for Scouting. He was trying to come up with 1,000 cans of food for the food bank, and he was having a tough time getting it all collected," Harvey said.

"I told him it didn't sound too hard, and he said, `Oh yeah, well, if you think it's so easy, you do it.' So we did. I got our troop together, and 10 girls came up with nearly 1,000 cans of food. So we had more than 1,000 cans in the family room for the Boy Scouts and nearly 1,000 in the bedroom for the Girl Scouts."

Anissa Harvey, 16, was one of those who carried out the first food drive seven years ago. Now president of Troop 96, she was down on all fours Saturday morning, sorting and boxing donated items for distribution to area food pantries.

She's become an expert at fitting as much food as possible into a box. "You give me a space two inches wide, and I'll find a way to get a couple of cans of tuna in there. We've got a system: you put the cans into boxes, and the boxes into bags.

"I won't miss a year of doing this," she said, pausing momentarily to explain. "I had to work this morning, but I told them I'd have to come in early and then leave."

She remembers the first time her troop collected food. "We went door to door that year, and to all of our neighbors and friends. We don't do the door-to-door drive anymore - they're worried about girls going from house to house."

Each year since, the project has grown in scope. Several troops, grouped into service units, joined in as time passed, and the Utah Girl Scout Council adopted the project last year. Though they've abandoned the door-to-door approach, the Scouts still manage to come up with thousands of items by promoting the project at home and school.

Harvey said the Scouts used to hold the drive in the fall, but realized that many other groups also provided food then in anticipation of the upcoming holidays. "So we decided to do it in the early spring instead. That's the time the shelters are all down on food again."

Grady Walker, special projects coordinator for Utahns Against Hunger, said he is pleased to see young people working as advocates for the needs of the hungry. "There's some educating going on in the process, and what they're doing is terribly important."

Last year alone, pantries in the Salt Lake Valley distributed between 900,000 and one million pounds of food. "We had roughly 3,000 pounds a day going out. That's a very small indicator of what's going on out there. Many, many people are hungry."

From numbers collected by his agency, Walker estimated that some 3,900 households were served by pantries in Salt Lake County during January, with 1,100 others served by pantries elsewhere in Utah. "These numbers don't take into account the smaller operations or the programs provided by the LDS Church and other churches. It's a terribly conservative estimate.

"It's sad, but there will always be a significant demand for this type of service, as long as we fail to address poverty as the underlying cause of the problem."