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Staff File PhotoA box of Sack Packs await distribution to Bradley County, Tenn., elementary students in this file photo. Bradley County students are not affected by the recent stoppage in the program.

A program that feeds more than 1,700 hungry children on weekends in Hamilton and seven other area counties has run out of money and won't be there when the kids get back from winter break unless donors step up.

Many low-income students in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia depend for proper nutrition on the breakfast and lunch programs offered in schools. Sack Pack programs operated or supplied by the Chattanooga Area Food Bank extend that help so kids don't go hungry on the weekends.

Scott Bruce, communications director for the food bank, said fundraising was coming up short — perhaps because supporters had directed their money to help victims of multiple disasters this year, such as the Texas and Puerto Rico hurricanes.

So the food bank is asking local people and businesses to dig a little deeper and help a little more.

"Our community is one of the most philanthropic I've ever experienced and one that takes care of its own," President and CEO Gina Crumbliss said in a news release.

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Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - 10/2/12. Elaine Samples and Gwendolyn Evans, Sack Pack Coordinator at The Caring Place, assemble Sack Packs early Tuesday afternoon in Cleveland, Tenn. The Sack Packs are secretly distributed to Bradley County elementary students every Friday who are in danger of going hungry over the weekend where free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches are unavailable.
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Bruce said it would cost right at $102,000 to keep feeding hungry kids in the food bank's eight-county program through the end of the academic year. Besides Hamilton, the other counties are Marion, Grundy, Meigs, Polk, Sequatchie and Van Buren in Tennessee and Walker County, Ga.

"It's one of our most expensive programs. We purchase everything, we don't use donated items," he said.

Weekend packs come with boxed cereal, milk, fruit juice, granola bars and foods such as canned soup or stew they can heat and eat.

"We wanted to be consistent each week for every kid. We wanted it to be nutritious, and we wanted it to be easy to open," he said.

The cutback affects only Sack Packs prepared by the food bank for the eight-county region. Some 12,000 students in 12 counties that buy food from the Food Bank and make up the sacks themselves will continue to receive their food.

Bruce said the agency has more than 300 partners and distributes more than 16 million pounds of food — more than 13.5 million meals — from its warehouse, its mobile pantries and by other methods each year. Every $1 raised provides four meals, and 97 cents of every dollar goes to support food and programs, according to the agency's website.

"We're still getting a ton of food out to everyone, but Sack Pack is just dear to everyone's hearts," he said.

The cancellation came to light the day after winter break began in local schools, and school administrators could not be reached for comment.

However, local District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson said many students in her district will lose out if the program ends. She said she'd met with food bank officials within the last few months and got the impression they were stretched for funds.

"It breaks our heart to know they are having to shut down the program," Robinson said. "They've been a great partner with [Hamilton County Department of Education] and I hope the private funders will step up to help."

In Walker County, Ga., schools Superintendent Damon Raines said 315 students at Stone Creek Elementary and Rossville Elementary benefited from the program. Bruce said the two schools received about $18,000 worth of food in one semester.

Raines said nine other schools receive meals on the weekends through Backpack Blessings, a United Way program administered by the YMCA. He said he and other school officials work with local businesses to raise money for that program, as well.

If the Food Bank's Sack Pack ends for the year, the Stone Creek and Rossville students can be brought into Backpack Blessings, he said.

To give to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, visit www.chattfoodbank.org and click on the "Donate" button in the upper right corner or call 423-622-1800.

Staff writer Tyler Jett contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

This story was updated Dec. 20, 2017, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.

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