Food Heroes: Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions
Many of us are moved by the plight of others, drawn to help in whatever way we can. Church members and I once spent a month filling tiny cardboard houses with our loose change, which we pooled together for the local food bank. Another member volunteers with his children at a soup kitchen each year during the holidays. I put cans of nonperishable food in those giant boxes by the exit door at our local supermarket just before Thanksgiving.
In their own way, all are important efforts. But Navyn Salem, a Barrington mom of four, was drawn to do something about hunger on a level most of us would find impossible to envision.
Travels to Salem’s father’s homeland of Tanzania (where the average life expectancy is 40 and over 10% of the population dies before the age of 5) brought her face to face with the ravages of hunger and malnutrition.
After one such trip Salem saw a CBS “60 Minutes” segment about a product called Plumpy’Nut. Developed by Nutriset Inc. (a French company with a history of nutrition innovation), Plumpy’Nut is basically peanut paste enriched with essential vitamins and minerals. It can reverse the effects of severe malnutrition. Surprisingly simple, yet remarkably effective, Plumpy’Nut (also known as a ready-to-use therapeutic food, or RUTF) has been successfully treating malnutrition on a global scale since 2005.
“I took that ‘60 Minutes’ segment as a sign,” Salem says. In 2007, Salem partnered with Nutriset and opened a factory in Tanzania. The factory is now locally owned and thriving, exporting to nine bordering countries and selling to UNICEF. By 2009 Salem founded Edesia, a nonprofit company based in Rhode Island whose mission is “to treat and prevent malnutrition for the world’s most vulnerable children.” The company Edesia was named for the Roman goddess of feasting.
Navyn Salem is slight, soft-spoken and has an aura of serenity and calm about her. With a degree in communications and marketing from Boston College, she has used her business experience, plus plenty of good common sense, to create a company whose product has reached the most needy in 35 countries around the globe.
Salem’s goal for her successful enterprise surprised me as she declared, “I hope to put myself out of business someday.” It’s also remarkable that Salem doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem, which I liken to emptying the ocean a teaspoon at a time.
“[Poverty and hunger] is always on my mind,” she said. “I’ve seen open sewers, six grades [of children] in one classroom with students all sharing one pencil. There’s not only no food, but no water either. It is a lack of bounty on every level.”
Though working globally, on the widest of spectrums, she describes it on a more intimate level. “I help one child at a time. It’s only one life but it’s one mother’s entire world.”
Salem can compartmentalize to an extent that allows her to focus, in the midst of overwhelming need, on what she can do. Face to face with absolute destitution, Salem simply goes about the task of accomplishing her mission.
“I cannot indulge the tragedy,” she says. “I have one piece of a solution and I have to remain focused. I cannot get distracted.” Edesia’s partner organization is located in Normandy, France. Nutriset is not only addressing the issue of hunger (with patented ready-to-use foods, known as RUFs) but has transformed the treatment of malnutrition with Plumpy’Nut. Companies that wanted to produce similar peanut-based fortified products challenged their patent, which expires in 2018. The challenges were unsuccessful. The obvious concern is that large for-profit companies have the ability to wipe out competition and focus on profit while ignoring the core issues that result in global hunger and malnutrition (the latter being core issues that have always been the sole focus of Nutriset).
Statistics vary widely due to the complexity of global reporting issues but most relief organizations concur that only a small percentage of malnourished children are able to receive effective treatment. UNICEF reports there are 217 million malnourished children throughout the world and their treatment rate is approximately 10%. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, reports that 3.1 million die each year of malnutrition (approximately one child every 10 seconds).
Malnutrition can be chronic or acute. Chronic malnutrition, sometimes referred to as stunting, happens over time. It is characterized by a child’s height being “significantly less than healthy children of the same age.” Acute malnutrition, which can be moderate or severe, is life threatening. Many variables can cause or contribute to chronic or acute malnutrition—from low birth weight, to not enough of the proper foods, to natural disasters (increasingly from climate change), or even political strife.
Chronic or acute malnutrition has long-term effects including early mortality, impaired brain development, lifelong cognitive deficits, lifelong impairment of productivity and chronic degenerative diseases in later life.
In order to have a child treated with Plumpy’Nut or another RUTF, mothers have to bring their children to clinics, where the kids are weighed, measured and their nutrition status assessed. Based on need, families are given a one- to two-week supply. This encourages a return visit, at which time the kids are again weighed and measured. The child’s progress is monitored over the course of treatment, which lasts an average of seven weeks.
Salem, who has traveled to many of the world’s regions she serves, remembered seeing a 2-year-old girl who weighed just 12 pounds. She has seen babies so weak they couldn’t hold up their heads. At a cost of just $50, a box of Plumpy’Nut can literally cure a child like this. A standard dose is two to three squeezable tubes, called sachets, per day, depending on the child’s weight.
Edesia’s Providence factory produces 6,000 metric tons of ready-to-use food each year. One of them, Plumpy’Nut, is used to treat severe acute malnutrition. In addition Edesia produces Plumpy’Sup (a supplemental treatment for moderate acute malnutrition); Plumpy’Doz (for supplemental use during at-risk periods, like a drought); Nutributter (used to prevent stunting); and Mamba (nutritionally fortified snack food for school-aged kids).
The brightly lit local production facility is a 15,000-square-foot beehive of constant activity. There are two daily eight-hour shifts pumping out sachet after sachet of lifesaving peanut paste. It takes about 55 minutes to make a batch of Plumpy’Nut, a mixture of peanuts, sugar, whey, milk powder and vegetable oil that is fortified with vitamins and minerals. I brought some home, tasted it myself and offered some to my children. It’s a bit sweeter and less stiff in consistency than peanut butter but otherwise very nearly the same. My voracious 17-year-old son loved it. I asked if they ever use RUTFs in the United States. “No,” Salem replied, “people in the U.S. suffer from another form of malnutrition, obesity.”
Ideally developing countries with malnutrition issues would be able to produce the product they need but enormous social and political pressures make such undertakings extremely difficult. Nutriset has developed a network of partnerships and franchises that encourage locally sourced raw materials and local production and currently there are 10 factories in Nutriset’s PlumpyField network operating in developing countries.
Opening a factory in the United States proved to be the most effective option for Salem’s global mission and helped offer jobs to the unemployed right here at home. Edesia currently has 48 employees, a number of whom are refugees from the Congo, Liberia, Burma/Myanmar and elsewhere. Distributed mainly in African countries, Edesia has also sent shipments to Haiti, Yemen, Pakistan and recently to Syria with its growing refugee crisis.
Despite her wish to one day put Edesia out of business, Salem is expanding to a much needed and larger production facility within the year.
For more information visit EdesiaGlobal.org.