On Dec. 20, 2017, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank announced it would be cutting Sack Pack programs in eight of the 20 counties it serves due to lack of funding.
The decision would have affected 315 students in Walker County, who receive the packs of easy-to-prepare, healthy foods such as cereal, milk, juice, fruit, granola bars and soup each weekend.
The community rallied at the news, and just over two weeks later the food bank made another announcement.
"The community responded with an extraordinary revenue rescue and resolved the shortfall," according to a release from the food bank.
"It has been an awe-inspiring and humbling experience to witness people from all walks of life, the corporate world and the media come out in droves to offer their support," said Gina Crumbliss, food bank president and CEO.
But while the donations secured meals for the 1,776 area students who depend solely on the food bank to have something to eat over the weekend — more than 12,000 others are served through Sack Pack partner agencies — the solution isn't long term.
"While the problem has been resolved for now, the challenge will be to design a cost-effective means of serving these clients for the 2018-19 school year and beyond," said John Clark, food bank board chairman. "We are humbled by this outpouring of support and we hope there are individuals and businesses in the eight counties — Hamilton, Marion, Grundy, Sequatchie, Meigs, Polk, Van Buren and Walker — with the financial capability that will be inspired to adopt their area schools and insure that the nutritional needs of students are met."
The North Georgia YMCA offers a service similar to the Sack Pack program, Backpack Blessings, to local students. Thanks to partners such as the food bank, which offers food at deeply discounted prices, and area churches, which purchase and package the food, the meal service is able to provide weekend nourishment for 565 kids in nine North Georgia schools — a number that continues to grow along with the need.
According to North Georgia YMCA Executive Director John Donahoo, Backpack Blessings has grown from "just a few packs" four years ago to last year's 460 and counting.
"We are not equipped to take on 315 new kids on short notice, since we're only serving 565 right now," he said following the Sack Pack scare. "If that's a long-term problem, we would certainly look at it. The main thing we need would be funding — that's probably what the food bank is feeling."
One person who may be key to a more long-term strategy for those in the North Georgia area is Melanie Hammontree, the new development officer for the food bank's Northwest Georgia branch. Located in Dalton, this branch serves Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Gilmer, Fannin, Walker, Whitfield and Murray counties.
"We have the utmost confidence in Melanie as a respected leader in the Northwest Georgia community and have already seen a positive impact in our organization from having her on our team," Crumbliss said.
Hammontree is a third-generation Daltonian with 13 years of experience working for nonprofits in the area. Most recently, she worked at Dalton Arts Project and the Dance Theatre of Dalton, and also served as president of the Dalton Middle School Booster Club.
"I have lived in the North Georgia community my entire life, so I have lived and worked here and I love this community," Hammontree said.
She said her goal is to spread awareness about the food bank and what it does in Northwest Georgia.
"I am very excited to be part of the food bank. It's obviously a great organization that has a great mission," said Hammontree.
Those wishing to make a donation to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank or who would like to learn more can visit chattfoodbank.org or call 423-622-1800. Every dollar raised provides four meals, and 97 cents of every dollar goes to support food and programs, according to food bank officials.
Staff writer Jennifer Bardoner contributed to this story.
Email Carson Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.