A world of difference; Hormel hopes to help solve world hunger with Spammy

Joe C. Swedberg and Melissa Bonorden have played a major role in Hormel’s Project Spammy. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Joe C. Swedberg and Melissa Bonorden have played a major role in Hormel’s Project Spammy. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

There’s a world of potential inside of a small can here in Austin.

The can, about 85 grams, contains a paste filled with vitamins and nutrients. It doesn’t look very appealing, but officials at Hormel Foods Corp. hope this brown paste could one day save the lives of millions of people suffering from malnutrition.

It’s called Spammy.

Spammy is the result of a concerted effort by Hormel to increase its philanthropic presence and to create a way to solve hunger problems worldwide. It’s a high-calorie, anti-hunger product specifically created for children and young adults suffering from nutritional maladies, and it could become a large part of aid efforts around the world.

The Schwab family on their trip to Guatemala in 2013 as part of Project Spammy. The trip was therapuetic for the family as Pat and Beth lost their daughter Lauren that April. Photo provided

The Schwab family on their trip to Guatemala in 2013 as part of Project Spammy. The trip was therapuetic for the family as Pat and Beth lost their daughter Lauren that April. Photo provided

Spammy up

Hormel’s philanthropic mission started back in 2007, when President and CEO Jeff Ettinger read about Plumpy’Nut, a peanut butter-based spread created by the French company Nutriset. In essence, Plumpy’Nut is a way to get lots of nutrients and calories into severely malnourished children in countries around the world, in essence preventing them from dying of starvation.

Inspired, Ettinger requested the company’s research and development arm to look into a way to do something similar.

“We’ve been able to make shelf-stable products for many years, such as Spam,” Joe Swedberg, Hormel’s vice president for legislative affairs, said. “Why couldn’t we do something on a protein basis?”

About a year later, Spammy was created. Food scientists decided to use turkey and other poultry for Spammy, because it would be easier for cultures across the globe to accept.

After they created Spammy, Hormel officials looked at countries to donate the newly created spread, as well as to test just how efficient Spammy would be in helping alleviate nutrition problems.

Though the company discussed several African nations, Hormel ultimately chose a site closer to home: Guatemala, which has more than 50 percent of its citizens living in poverty as well as rampant nutritional issues causing stunted growth in its population.

Hormel partnered with Food for the Poor, an international nonprofit charity, as well as Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic-based charity that focuses on education and other aid in Guatemala.

“They worked with the poorest of the poor,” Melissa Bonorden, a senior scientist at Hormel said. “They had already identified cities around Guatemala to work in.”

The charities use nutritionists to visit families in villages around the Central American country, which borders just southeast of Mexico. Those nutritionists speak to women and weigh children, then give a care package containing supplements to the families.

“We didn’t just give away cans,” Bonorden said. “We conducted cooking classes, we developed recipes.”

Bonorden and Swedberg credited much of Spammy’s success to its partnership with Food for the Poor and Caritas, as those groups already had much of the cultural knowledge needed to help Hormel tailor Spammy to Guatemalans.

 Further trials

Spammy. Photo provided

Spammy. Photo provided

After several years of work, Hormel officially announced Spammy in 2011 and committed to shipping more than 1 million cans to Guatemala over a three-year period.

“Hormel Foods sought to create a product high in protein to help serve malnourished and poverty-stricken communities worldwide,” Ettinger said at the time. “Our company has years of experience in creating shelf-stable proteins, so we employed our expertise to create this new product.”

Hormel worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Micronutrient-Fortified Food Aid Products Pilot (MFFAPP) to test out Spammy’s nutritional properties at a Catholic school within Guatemala.

More than 160 elementary students were given Spammy over a semester of school in early 2012, about 20 weeks long. Half of the students were given regular Spammy while another half was given Spammy fortified with Vitamin D, which many Guatemalans don’t get enough of.

The study provided positive results:

—All participants showed greater-than-expected improvement in cognitive scores.

—There was a 44 percent reduction in the number of school days missed due to illness.

—Children receiving fortified Spammy showed statistical improvements in vitamin D and B12 levels.

—A positive correlation was found between increase in cognitive gain scores and vitamin D concentrations in the treatment group.

In other words, Spammy helped give students a nutritional boost in their academics.

“The results were very encouraging,” Bonorden said.

The company had to wait 18 months to publicly unveil the study as Hormel and the USDA had to report to Congressional committees first. Yet during that time, Hormel officials found themselves busy with other work.

 The importance of giving

For the past several years, Hormel officials have donated their time and energy to helping the poor in Guatemala through week-long volunteer trips.

Groups of 25 Hormel employees and their families fly down for a week to work on volunteer projects, whatever they may be.

“It’s a wonderful way to give back,” Pat Schwab said.

Schwab, his wife, Beth, and their family flew to Guatemala in July 2013, just three months after Pat and Beth’s daughter, Lauren Schwab, died that April.

The trip was a healing experience for the Schwabs, as well as a way to do some good for others.

The volunteer trips have become popular as more officials travel to Guatemala. Hormel used to do one trip a year, but has expanded the program to four annual trips among other philanthropic efforts, such as a scholarship fund for Guatemalan high school students.

“We’ve got a waiting list for the trips now,” Swedberg said with a laugh.

 The future of Spammy

While Spammy has picked up positive momentum over the past few years, there’s more work to be done. Hormel donated more than 2.4 million cans of Spammy in 2013 to Guatemala and have donated Spammy to other countries in need, such as Haiti after an earthquake caused massive damage to the island nation in 2010.

Hormel officials have launched other hunger-related projects since Spammy’s success, which included a nutritional study of Neveln Elementary School students in 2012.

Yet the biggest goal for Spammy is to get worldwide acceptance through international measures.

Hormel officials are lobbying to get Spammy approved by the U.S. and United Nations officials as part of a package distribution “food basket” to countries around the world, according to Swedberg.

“We’re kind of blazing a new trail with this,” Swedberg said. “We’re trying to show that you can partner Spammy with soy products, with beans, and address nutritional needs in that way.”

Since Spammy can be fortified with various nutrients on top of its natural proteins, the product could essentially be tailor-made for specific nutritional deficiencies.

Austin residents likely won’t see a can of Spammy on store shelves anytime soon however. The USDA prohibits fortified foods from being sold in the U.S., though Swedberg said Spammy isn’t geared toward a for-profit U.S. market.

“We’re setting this up as a not-for-profit segment of our company,” he said. “We would like to make it available as economical as possible for these organizations, the USDA and others, to be able to incorporate it into children’s diets.”

Though it could take some time for that to happen, Hormel is meeting with groups such as the World Food Program, USAID, Save the Children and others.

Not bad for a small can of turkey paste.

“It’s a blank canvas,” Pat Schwab said.

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