By Shelia Grobosky
Can you imagine going to bed hungry? What about not having any food or a limited amount of food over the weekend? Childhood hunger is a real issue, and many school-aged kids across the country rely on free and reduced-cost meals from their public-school systems to provide them with balanced meals twice a day. But then the weekend comes. These young kids leave school on Friday and many of them know they won’t have a meal until breakfast at school on Monday. This is the case for one in four children in Oklahoma, the state that ranks fifth in the nation for hunger. However, the statistics are very similar across the country.
With the assistance of the Backpack program through two Oklahoma food banks, those children are receiving easy-to-prepare meals and healthy snacks in a backpack each Friday to help sustain them through the weekend. And thanks to a partnership with the greater agricultural community, those young people are also getting protein as part of their weekend nourishment. Thad Doye currently serves as Executive Director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, one of the financial partners of the program. Doye helped start the “Pork for Packs” program several years ago and is still involved today, by managing the number of animals to make sure the food banks have enough meat.
“The reason I do it is there’s no need for anybody to be hungry anywhere, especially in an ag-producing state. We should not have kids in our state in need or hungry. I thought it was a great project. It’s great for agriculture. It’s great for society. I had a chance to do something different, so I did it,” Doye said.
The original “Beef for Backpacks” program first started in Oklahoma when several years ago one of the booster organizations of the Oklahoma Youth Expo (OYE) decided to conduct a food drive at the show. According to Roy Lee Lindsey, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Pork Council, discussion ensued on how to donate animals since the one thing food banks everywhere need is protein – especially meat protein. The 4-H and FFA exhibitors decided to donate their show steers. Eventually show pigs were added to the mix, creating the “Pork for Packs” program. The animals were donated, processed and made into protein sticks that are given to hungry Oklahoma school children each Friday. Animals shown at the Tulsa State Fair are also donated to the program.
“The gentleman that did the leg work on most of this project is Thad Doye, who at the time wasn’t the executive director of Farm Bureau. He would literally come to the show with his trailer and take the animals to his house until the animals could be processed and turned into protein sticks. Today the quantity of animals donated is so high that we really don’t have a place to keep them until we get them into harvest. So, in some cases, we sell the animals directly at a market and take the dollars raised at that sale to offset the cost to make protein sticks. Same net results if you will. We just don’t have to handle the animals and don’t have to feed them out,” Lindsey said.
After the 2019 Tulsa State Fair, Lindsey said that 160 pigs were donated. Of those, 90 pigs were sent to a processor in Kiowa, Kan., who processes the pigs into boneless product. And Ralph’s Packing Co., makes the protein sticks for the food banks to distribute. He said lambs and goats are also donated, and those are sold to have the money to use for processing expenses. Both Lindsey and Doye emphasized that all money the animals generate go directly back into the program, and there are no administrative costs paid with the money from the animals donated by the youth.
“We’re at over a million protein sticks being made each year. Every last bit of it is due to the generosity of our exhibitors, their parents, their teachers, their instructors, if they don’t contribute, if they don’t donate animals, we don’t have anything to turn into protein sticks. What the kids get out of it is one, they get the knowledge that they are helping a fellow student. They are helping an Oklahoma kid that is going to go home hungry. The second thing they get is they get a tax-deductible receipt from Oklahoma Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture for an in-kind donation. I think most of the kids like it because they like the idea of helping others.”
Catherine Stangl, a senior at Kingfisher High School, has donated her show pig projects and enjoys both the opportunities to make a difference and learn more about the needs of her peers.
“I think it is a really, really good opportunity. Not only is it helping other kids, but it helps us because we’re learning about giving back. I’ve always been the type of person who wants to give, and we get that opportunity at these big shows. I got to see how they do the process. I got to go and help pass out the meat sticks and their little backpacks to the kids. It made me kind of sad to see that they don’t have much, but when we were helping them, that made me really happy, so I think it really is a good program they have going, and I’d encourage other states to do something similar,” Stangl said.
With more than 1 million protein sticks produced in 2018, more than 20,000 kids were given at least one protein stick each week during the school year – just through the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Protein is vital in the development of brain and immune systems and provides energy to growing children, making these protein sticks so valuable to the weekly backpacks.
“This has been a tremendous partnership between the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Pork Council, and the Food Banks and our youth. Our state FFA officer team made this a priority and was recognized by National FFA just for the sheer volume. You start thinking of a million of anything and that’s a whole bunch,” Lindsey said.
No one should have to imagine going hungry. No one should have to go hungry and no one should ever be deprived of meat protein. Partnerships like these in Oklahoma are working to help curb childhood hunger. Together, they are making a difference. Together, they are making the industry #AgProud.
More from Farm Journal's PORK: