One of the many realities brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic is that families are often one setback away from finding themselves in a position of food insecurity. In normal, non-pandemic times, roughly one-in-eight children throughout Colorado are already uncertain as to the source of their next meal, so it’s nothing short of serendipitous that a new collaboration between cattle industry partners, non-profits and Colorado State University has geared up to provide extra protein for Colorado children in a time when they need it most.
Beef Sticks for Backpacks is a program co-founded by Jordan Levi, managing member and founder of Arcadia Asset Management, which facilitated the purchase of Five Rivers Cattle, the world’s largest cattle feeding operation. Inspired by a beef sticks donation program he and his wife learned about in 2018 in western Texas, Levi was inspired to bring that idea to school-children throughout Colorado.
“What could we do to give back to the community and give back to the industry that’s been so good to us?,” remembered Levi. “What if we could put a beef stick in every backpack program in the state of Colorado? We found a backpack program in Loveland called KidsPak and rallied the troops. The ag community here has always done a great job of giving back, so why don’t we do something to support the greater good and give back at the same time?”
Assembling a team to benefit children throughout Colorado
To get the program off the ground, Levi assembled a team of regional, national and international beef industry titans. Key players such as JBS USA, Meyer Natural Foods, Five Rivers, Magnum Feedyard, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Beef Council and Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences are just a few of the organizations that came together to participate in the undertaking.
“JBS USA is humbled to be part of the important work that Beef Sticks for Backpacks is doing in Colorado,” said Nikki Richardson, head of JBS USA corporate communications. “Alleviating food insecurity is a cause that’s important to our company, and we are grateful for the opportunity to provide support. This initiative is a great example of food and agriculture entities in our state coming together to make a difference.”
Through this partnership, an influx of donations including raw product, spices, casing, production equipment and in-kind offerings converge primarily at the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Animal Sciences.
Inside the department’s JBS Global Food Innovation Center, students and faculty work to transform the materials into a final product. That product is then funneled into state-wide backpack programs, which send children home each Friday with a weekend’s allotment of nutritious items. The pack includes one beef stick per child. Currently, Beef Sticks for Backpacks donates 5,000 sticks per-week to backpack programs in Weld and Larimer County, with each stick clocking in at a robust 8 grams of protein.
“Things are tough right now, but for some people it’s tough all the time,” said Dan Byers, director of Beef Sticks for Backpacks. “This gives us an opportunity that’s more important than ever. Hunger exists all the time and it’s something that shouldn’t ever exist with kids so it’s been great to see what the community’s been able to do surrounding what we’re facing. Helping to feed kids is a great thing for all of us to focus on.”
Developing unique learning experiences for CSU students
While Beef Sticks for Backpacks is directly benefiting Colorado children, it’s also providing unique opportunities for CSU Animal Science students. In most animal sciences programs across academia in the United States, students spend time learning the production side of the meat industry, but thanks to the partners involved with Beef Sticks for Backpacks, CSU offers a more immersive experience with a standing production calendar delivered on a weekly basis.
“We’re producing sticks like a small plant would, following all the rules that we have to, from regulatory to food safety, and we’re doing that every week going forward,” said Bob Delmore, professor of meat science, meat quality and food safety in the Department of Animal Sciences. “That’s something new for the students. So, all the students that are working in the meat lab are learning how to grind, blend, form the product, cook the product, chill the product, package the product, do all the appropriate testing that we do, pack it out into cases, invoice it, get it to the customer, and they’re doing that every week.”
“That’s a pretty big add to our program, that students are getting the exposure doing this in scale,” added Delmore.
Another big add to the program is the technology that’s been made available thanks to partnerships. According to Delmore, JBS USA has been instrumental in securing equipment to help move the project forward, including state-of-the-art packaging equipment from MULTIVAC. For that piece of equipment, JBS USA helped procure the item and brought in technicians to teach faculty and students how to use it.
“That’s pretty unique and I’ve not seen that happen before,” said Delmore. “We’ll run that piece of equipment for this project, but we’ll also do other things with it—teaching, research outreach. So, it adds strength to our program. Its primary role is to be here to make beef sticks, but other things will also be packaged on that piece of equipment.”
For the program, roughly 15 students are managed by a master’s degree student who is helping oversee the project. While this initiative is still in its relative infancy, Delmore is working on expanding it into a full-fledged course built around the manufacturing of beef sticks.
Evolving the program beyond the Front Range
With the program currently servicing children in Larimer and Weld County, Levi is eyeing expansion as soon as possible, including a move into Mesa and Morgan County in 2021. But the ultimate goal, according to Levi, is to get beef sticks into the backpacks of children across all of Colorado, with an eventual targeted output of more than 30,000 beef sticks a week.
“We want every single backpack program in Colorado to be served this incredible product, brought to fruition by Colorado agriculture and Colorado State University— the most important thing is that kids get fed on the weekends,” said Levi. “We have some of the brightest minds in the community, in different sectors, all working together for the greater good. It’s awesome.”