Tar Heel of the Week

She led a food fight with a purpose

Staff WriterJune 26, 2011 

— On the big day, Sue Anne Lewis rose at 4 a.m. to watch the 18-wheelers roll in carrying sacks of flour, bags of rice and enough Campbell's Soup to float a crate of saltines.

Bullhorn in hand, she directed a fleet of forklifts and shepherded more than 400 volunteers, gathering more than half a million pounds of food in 16 hours.

Her feat stuffed the pantry at Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina during March, one of the hungriest months. But flashier still, it put her students at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Guinness World Records: Largest Food Drive in a Single Day: 559,885 pounds.

"It's a much better record than the world's largest fingernail," said Lewis, 29.

As a student life instructor, Lewis acts as den mother to 34 of the school's 680 11th- and 12th-graders, living beside them on the Durham campus, sprinkling tidbits of culture into their accelerated math and science curriculum.

Sometimes that's as simple as a foray to a Mongolian grill or an excursion to the science museum. Sometimes there's more humanitarian heft to Lewis' work, such as the silent auction she organized for a Louisiana school after Hurricane Katrina.

But every project of hers shows the thoughtfulness she has been practicing since her days at Meredith College, when she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to become a resident assistant. For most RAs, the job is a chance to get a bigger dorm room and make some cash to help with tuition. Lewis turned it into a craft.

"She decorated all our doors with a beach theme, which I thought was cool," recalled her friend Victoria Bunch of Raleigh, who graduated in 2005.

"She had cut out all these little lighthouses - you know, she's from the beach and can see a lighthouse from her house - and she put our names on all these little sand dollars," Bunch said. "Come to find out she had spent all summer hunting sand dollars."

Life on water

Lewis grew up in the tiny town of Marshallberg near Harkers Island, where her father shrimped and her mother worked on the Cedar Island-Ocracoke ferry, telling pirate stories to tourists.

As a kid, she would follow her father out on the water at night, driving the boat until it got too dark, and she would drop below deck to sleep.

When she woke, they would be back at the docks.

"It was a little like Forrest Gump," she said.

Her love of softball pulled her from the coast to Raleigh.

She was recruited to play for Meredith, but quit after breaking her foot on a slide into third base. She poured her energy into being an RA, and when her classmate became a student life instructor at the school of Science and Mathematics, Lewis followed, taking up new digs in the residence hall known as Reynolds 1E2E2D.

Then in 2009, Lewis thought up a project that brought quirky fame to her lambs at science and math.

It all started when she had each of them pick a world record they found meaningful and make it into a door decoration.

"I think one of them had the tallest Egyptian pyramid," she said. "One of them had most hot dogs eaten."

The first attempt

Before long, it was clear the kids had to shoot for their own record. Their first idea: largest gathering of nerds. Lewis drew up plans for students assembled on campus in suspenders and pocket protectors, each of them bearing a can of food to give the record attempt some charitable weight, but the Guinness people didn't buy it.

So they tried again, this time sticking just to the cans of food. With Lewis leading, the students would try to conduct the world's largest food drive, bringing all of it to a single location within 24 hours. The current record holder, they learned, was a Mormon church in Calgary, which collected 509,147 pounds.

For their first attempt last year, the students had about two months to plan, and they were novices. Still, the 2010 record attempt garnered more than 300,000 pounds for the homeless shelters, church pantries and soup kitchens the Food Bank fills.

"Which was spectacular," said Linda Fisher, special events and food drive manager for the Food Bank. "It kind of got lost in the disappointment of not being the record, but that's still an enormous amount of food, maybe the most we'd ever had."

A place in the books

On their second try, in March, the Science and Math students had a year to plan, and their strategy went wider.

They got two retirement communities in Durham to collect food beforehand, challenging each other.

They also found help from Walmart and Chick-fil-A branches, which collected food in advance and delivered it on drive day. On top of that, Mormon churches in Raleigh and Apex were more than happy to outdo their Canadian brethren, contributing more than 100,000 pounds.

By the time the food was all delivered, Lewis' kids had shattered the Calgary record, reeling in 559,885 pounds. More than 400 students participated in some way, and that's just those who signed in. The work was so massive that many served double shifts. Every can had to be checked for its expiration date.

All told, it filled one-third of the food bank's giant warehouse and won easy certification from Guinness. "In May," Fisher said, "we still had some of the food drive left over."

Now Lewis is planning a smaller drive, maybe just 120,000 pounds, having let the 120-hour weeks of food drive planning distract her from other student life instructor duties.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a 15-year-old trying to become an Eagle Scout is planning his own record attempt, and Lewis is helping him with the logistics.

She isn't protective of her record. It's for a good cause, and she wouldn't mind if it got broken every year.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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