Beef Sticks for Backpacks program gives kids needed protein on weekends
Without the work there isn’t a solution. Without a solution, there’s still a problem.
Jordan Levi has found a solution to help alleviate some of the food insecurity for Colorado kids on the weekends. There are around 360,000 school-aged children in the state and for many the meals they receive at school are their only source of nutrition.
A recent Colorado State University College of Agriculture Animal Sciences Engaging with Our State webinar featured the Beef Sticks for Backpacks program. The partnership fueled by passion is working to give school-aged children beef sticks for their weekend protein source, as well as give Colorado State University students experience in producing, manufacturing and processing the sticks in the meat lab.
A few years ago, after a recent move, Levi and his wife, Shannon, wanted to do something to support their new Colorado community. Beef was an obvious choice for the founder of Arcadia Asset Management, which oversees cattle feeding investments, and co-founder of the private marketing platform Fed Cattle Exchange. He is also the co-founder of Beef Bank Colorado, which has spearheaded the Beef Sticks for Backpacks program.
According to beefsticks.org, with the help of KidsPak of Loveland, Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, Arcadia Asset Management, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Livestock Association, Colorado State University and many others, every food insecure child in Larimer County has been provided with one beef stick every weekend. CSU’s department of animal sciences helps manufacture the beef sticks, with students and volunteers working to manufacture, package and distribute the sticks.
Robert Delmore, professor and the faculty director of the JBS Global Food Innovation Center at CSU, said even though there are programs in many communities that feed kids in need and the federal government’s nutrition programs for school-age children have done a great job, there’s still gaps in some kids’ nutrition—when they’re not at school.
“Because that’s where the challenge is,” he said.
Levi said the gap on weekends is generally filled by charities throughout the state or on a national level in other states.
“But one common thing we found is that these backpacks, while are somewhat nutritious, they tend to lack protein,” Levi said. “And the reason they lack proteins because proteins are expensive, especially beef protein.”
He wanted to find a way to be able to distribute beef protein in backpacks in certain areas.
“Then we tried to round up our peers in the agricultural industry, and then ancillary businesses around agriculture to help raise funds to put beef and what ultimately became a beef stick that was formulated at Colorado State, into backpacks throughout the United States,” he said.
Beef has been good to Levi and his family, and since his family and others were livestock producers, the natural progression was to align himself with “one of the finest universities in the country and then bring some great people around us.”
“It checked all the boxes for all of us. It promotes an agricultural product—a distinctly Colorado product,” he said. “But the most important thing is it feeds the most vulnerable, which is children.”
Goals to grow
Levi said the program started off with very ambitious goals, goals they expected to be achieved five to 10 years down the road. Not in one month like they actually did.
“We started off with this program distributing about 300 sticks a week in one county,” he said.
He sold it to CSU department of animal science head, Keith Belk and Delmore that he’d only need 300 to 500 sticks a week.
“I’m proud to say that Dr. Delmore and his team are producing 15,000 sticks a week,” he said. “And we’re distributing those in eight counties throughout the state with penetration from north to south, east to west, to rural communities and urban communities.”
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As the program grew and donations increased, they hired a director and they pushed leadership at CSU to hire a production manager, Kyle Harrington.
“Without Dr. Bob and without Doc, without Kyle, really none of this could be done,” Levi said. “And the reason it couldn’t be done is that we just—it’s one thing to have a plan. It’s another thing to have an idea but it’s a whole different thing to execute.”
According to Levi, Delmore and Harrington spend most of their time in the meat lab on the beef sticks.
“(They) have been able to execute a vision and execute a vision in a timeline that we never thought was possible,” he said.
Delmore said when Levi came to talk to him about the project, he relayed how the eventual relationship will be a unique one—working with a philanthropic group, working with the business community in a university setting to feed kids.
“I think it’s not been done in this way before,” Delmore said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”
Levi said the “three legged stool approach” is one reason why the project really works.
“We have business that takes a business approach to philanthropic operation and utilizes the technologies and the thought of the university,” he said. “And so with that three legged stool we’ve been able to execute in a much faster fashion, than if one of those legs of the stool worked on it by itself.”
And one part he really thinks is neat is the business side and how it works with the university.
“They can utilize each other to look at certain business attributes and then rely on the university to help us improve what we’re doing in industry and vice versa,” Levi said. “And then that’s all for the benefit of philanthropy.”
And what makes this “super exciting” for Levi and his cohorts is the thought of expansion on the university aspect of the project. Levi said Delmore hopes to have a class on how to produce the beef sticks. This generation of students who will ultimately enter the workforce, are different that generations prior.
“They require some purpose outside of making money. They require some type of purpose outside of doing their daily job,” he said. “And this philanthropic part of business really allows us to engage people within our industry allows us to engage our personnel within our particular businesses, and allows us to execute and move that ball forward much quicker.”
Delmore said when they first started looking at setting up production at the JBS Global Food Innovation Center there were some production issues.
“While we have a phenomenal facility, we weren’t set up to make large numbers of beef sticks each week,” he said. “We had the JBS Global Food Innovation Center open and running very well and we have a nice array of pilot plant type equipment.”
This project, however, required something a little bit different. It required a very intensive partnership and collaboration. JBS was receptive to help leverage its skill sets and knowledge base. CSU had pilot size equipment and a facility. One challenge was it could not put industrial sized equipment in the facility at the expense of the other things the university does.
“But if we didn’t make some changes, if we didn’t add some equipment, we wouldn’t be able to produce these,” Delmore said.
According to their website, they’ve produced 501,284 beef sticks since 2019, and that number couldn’t be possible without the volunteers, students and faculty at CSU. Levi believes besides producing the beef sticks to feed the kids, they’re also creating students that will be leaders in their field down the road that know how to use the tools in the industry, but most importantly how to give back.
“There’ll be leaders that have a philanthropic mindset and that’s how you create more philanthropic good is by training those people and knowing that it’s not just about making the beef stick,” he said. “It’s not just about knowing how to use these tools, but it’s also about giving back to your community.”
One of the nice things about working with a business in a university is that when you work with scientists, they’re always open to ideas.
“They want to prove those ideas,” he said. “But working with scientists has allowed us to take our cost down about 75%.”
By bringing down the variable price of the stick down significantly, it has allowed them to be able to increase donations.
“But the reason we’re getting the penetration is because in terms of distribution is because we’ve been able to drive down that cost and part of that is from the equipment and part of that is from learning from the university and the university learning from business,” Levi said.
Delmore said when the project was still in its early stages, those organizers discussed how it had to be beneficial to both sides, otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable.
“It won’t last, and people will lose interest in it,” he said. “I think it’s a great learning model and we’ve only scratched the surface on I think what we what we plan to do going forward on this.”
Currently Beef Sticks for Backpacks is building inventory and are working to find ways for additional fundraising. They’re also continually working to improve the plant machinery and waiting on a new grinder to be installed soon. Employee training is ongoing and Delmore hopes to have an intern soon.
“We’re working with the curriculum aspect on this to try to figure out what is the best approach for this. Is it a class? Is it a repackage of one of the other classes that I teach?” he said. “Because from a university standpoint, we feel it’s very important to make sure that we wrap some curriculum around this and I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunities in there.”
Learn more at www.beefsticks.org.
For more information about the Beef Sticks for Backpacks program watch the webinar from the Engaging with Our State Webinar series found at https://youtu.be/PEGGUMvTs40 or below. More from the webinar series can be found at https://agsci.colostate.edu/ansci/monthly-webinar-series.
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].