- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On first glance, it might seem odd that one of the world’s most famous confectioners has taken a keen interest in helping some of the world’s neediest to eat more healthfully.

But that is precisely what the 120-year-old Hershey Co. is intending with a new project called “Energize Learning,” a partnership with the Ghanaian Ministry of Education and Hershey’s Project Peanut Butter.

The initiative was founded to provide supplemental nutrition to schoolchildren in the West African country.

“Our CEO had a meeting going back probably 18 months with [Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama],” said Jeff King, senior director for global Hershey and Reese’s. “They were actually talking about cocoa, and the president of the country asked our CEO, ‘Is there anything we can do from an intervention with school feeding programs and childhood nutrition?’”

In 1957 Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain its independence from Great Britain, according to the CIA World Factbook. In addition to farming, the country relies on gas and oil exports for its economy. However, according to the Christian aid group WorldVision, 30 percent of Ghanaians subsist on less than $1 a day, and 54 percent live on less than $2 a day. The CIA also maintains the country is a way station between Southeast Asia and Europe in the lucrative heroin trade — which has increased domestic crime and graft. Transparency International reports that corruption is rampant in law enforcement, politics and finance.

However, Mr. King said that Mr. Mahama’s and Hershey’s goals aligned for a mission to increase childhood nutrition in Ghana and help the country’s youngest aim for a better tomorrow. A Hershey team toiled for 15 months to devise plan to offer a vitamin-fortified peanut butter packet snack for 50,000 schoolchildren per day by 2016, he said.

“We’ve had a technical team here the past few weeks getting the machinery up and running,” Mr. King told The Washington Times from the Ghanaian project site. “We’ve been producing the product and educating the teachers on the programs so they know what to do when the product starts arriving.”

While the Hershey empire has tickled — and, in some cases, overstimulated — the sweet teeth of candy consumers for decades, Mr. King said a key goal of the company moving forward is to shift from being a confectioner toward what he termed a “global snacking company.” He sees the Ghanaian project as a cornerstone of that future enterprise.

“We’re really moving beyond confection into better-for-you snacking,” he said. “One of our big focuses within that is portable nutrition. That’s really the future of snacking, we believe.”

“I think we realize as a company that diversification is important and that the consumer is changing their need of what they’re asking for,” he said, referring to a health-conscious public. “We’re trying to respond and evolve with that change.”

Part of the Ghanaian endeavor entails Hershey employees assisting local farmers to grow and harvest peanuts using more sustainable techniques to increase productivity and spur the local economy.

Mr. King, who says he enjoys an occasional chocolate “from time to time,” posits that the future of the Ghanaian project will look at what other products and foods Hershey might help introduce to the country to supply more nutritious calories. Right now, the focus remains on peanut products.

“We’re doing a study with the University of Ghana to prove the effectiveness of these school feeding products,” Mr. King said. “My hope is that we can show the effectiveness that we’re confident we can deliver, and then we can start talking about scaling this program up to feed [the] 1.7 million children in the school feeding program. We want to prove that it works and then start finding partners to be able to branch it out to the entire school feeding program.”

“It’ll be fantastic to see kids get fed,” he said. “It’s been a long journey for us.”

With more than 22,000 workers around the globe, the Hershey, Pennsylvania-based confectioner reaps more than $7.4 billion in revenue a year from more than 80 brands such as Reese’s, Jolly Rancher and Hershey’s Kisses.

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