A food program started in St. Mary’s County this school year aims to help fill children’s stomachs on weekends, when free school meals are not available.

The Snack Sak Project is an extension of the Southern Maryland Food Bank and is made possible with the help of United Way of St. Mary’s and other agencies and volunteers.

Each weekend beginning in September, a bag with up to seven pounds of food is sent home with 60 children, 15 from each of four elementary schools: Lexington Park, George Washington Carver, Green Holly and Park Hall. The four schools have the highest percentage of students from low-income households.

The sacks are packed with peanut butter and jelly, cereal, oatmeal, chips, granola bars, fruit cups, crackers, juice boxes and tuna, said Jennifer Hollingsworth, executive director of United Way of St. Mary’s County.

They are discreetly handed to children at the close of school Fridays. All of the sacks come back Monday, she said.

“These kids don’t really ask to be in this situation,” she said. They deserve to be fed, and not being hungry helps them learn better in class, she said.

The program is for children who are identified by school staff members as chronically hungry. This could manifest itself through physical appearances, such as extreme thinness or chronically dry or cracked lips, or through behavior, such as rushing to the food line, being extremely hungry Monday mornings, hoarding or stealing food or often asking for more food, a program referral form says.

“It’s really hard to pick 15 kids” at each school when there are many more who could use the extra weekend food, Hollingsworth said. The same students stay in the program all school year.

United Way hopes to expand the program to at least 20 children per school next year, she said.

“It’s been quite the undertaking, and fantastic to see this kind of support,” said Brenda DiCarlo, director of the Southern Maryland Food Bank.

Children at the four schools receive free breakfasts, and the federal free and reduced-priced meals program covers their lunches.

DiCarlo and others recognized the gap on weekends for children to get food and modeled this program after others in the United States.

“We don’t care who the families are. We just want to know it’s making a positive impact,” DiCarlo said.

The program, which runs for 30 weeks through the school year, costs $4,000 per school to operate. Each sack is filled with about $8 worth of food each weekend.

“We know which families have hunger,” said Susie Fowler, Lexington Park Elementary School principal and vice president of the local United Way board.

School employees have contacted families to let them know what the backpacks are for, and to make sure the food goes to the children, she said. She said the food is meant to supplement other food, but if needed, it could function as a meal on a weekend.

“Our families have been very grateful for this program,” Fowler said.

The food bank and United Way are planning to put out an appeal to businesses and organizations to sponsor the program.

“That’s the only way we’re going to grow,” DiCarlo said.

For information on how to help with the Snack Sak Project through volunteering or donations, contact the Southern Maryland Food Bank at 301-274-0695 or United Way of St. Mary’s County at 301-862-5577.