Suffolk-based peanut company teams up with Operation Smile

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A child with a cleft lip sucks formula from a RUTF packet. Malnutrition can prevent children from getting corrective surgery.

Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile has provided hundreds of thousands of free surgeries in developing countries to children and young adults born with cleft lips, cleft palates or other facial deformities. This year the nonprofit organization is celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Operation Smile’s surgeries can change these young patients’ lives, not only changing their appearance but also greatly improving their ability to eat. But there is a catch. To undergo surgery, patients typically cannot be malnourished.

Operation Smile explains that malnourished patients are at risk for lengthier hospital stays, more infections, more post-operative complications and even death. Therefore, patients who suffer from malnutrition are often delayed for cleft surgery until they can gain enough weight.

George Birdsong, owner of Suffolk-based Birdsong Peanuts, learned of the problem and came up with a solution. He knew of a product called Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) that has shown promise in reducing malnutrition.

“The World Health Organization calls it a miracle food because it was so successful in saving lives in Africa,” Birdsong says.

The product contains peanut butter, powdered milk, vegetable oil, vitamins and minerals. It is produced by MANA Nutrition, a nonprofit company based in Georgia. Children who have difficulty eating because of cleft lips or palates can suck the formula out of foil RUTF packets.

As of early October, Birdsong had donated 540 cases of RUTF to Operation Smile. Each case contains 150 packets. “We have provided peanuts for the packets, but we do not make the packet or the formula,” he says. “We only deal in raw peanuts.”

RUTF shipments have been made to 10 countries. “We will add five more countries in the next six months,” says Melissa DiBona, Operation Smile’s director of legacy projects. “We will send the packets where the needs are greatest and the impacts are highest. Eventually we want to show that kids can get surgery because of the intervention.”

Birdsong will continue to donate peanuts for the RUTF packets for the “foreseeable future,” he says. “My intention is to do this on a continuing basis with Operation Smile. I hope to find out that it’s helpful to them.”

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