Some humanitarian groups contend that enriched peanut butter could be the key to helping malnourished children regain their health.
The organizations are trying to make this food right where it’s needed most in countries like Haiti, Malawi, Ethiopia and Niger. They see local production as a way to provide jobs and bring money into impoverished communities.
But paying the bill is still a struggle. Even in poor countries, local food often turns out to be more expensive food.
To understand why, you need only look at Cap-Haitien, a city on the northern coast of Haiti.
There’s a shantytown on the edge of the city called Shada, where the homes are jammed up against each other with barely space to walk between them. And in the middle of this slum, Madame Bwa is running a free clinic.
“This is the list of the kids that we provided services to yesterday,” she says, pulling out a ragged piece of paper with 41 names scrawled on it. All of these children, she says, showed signs of malnutrition. “Some of them have big belly or yellow-red hair. Their eyes are white and their skin does not look well.”
The prescription? Medika Mamba, Creole for “peanut butter medicine.” This peanut butter has a lot of extra ingredients such as milk powder, oil, sugar and all the vitamins and minerals a growing child needs.
After three or four weeks of eating this daily package of energy and nutrients, the children will be fine, she says.
Easier, Tastier Treatment
This recipe has transformed the treatment of malnutrition. A French doctor, Andre Briend, came up with it just over a decade ago. In much of the world, it’s called Plumpy ‘Nut. Among specialists, it’s called ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).
Previously, treatment of severe malnutrition entailed liquid milk, sugar, oil and sometimes some added vitamins and minerals. It required refrigeration and, in many cases, a feeding tube and lots of time in a hospital. Yet many kids still didn’t get better.
By contrast, the peanut paste can be eaten at home, children like it and more survive on it. It’s now the gold standard treatment all over the world.
It’s a medical triumph. But there’s also a business side of this story that’s still being written, underscoring the tension between the global and local food production.
Why Local Peanuts Cost More
Pat Wolff, a pediatrician from St. Louis, founded an organization, Meds and Food for Kids in 2003, specifically to bring ready-to-use therapeutic food to Haiti. It started small, grinding up peanuts in a rented house in Cap-Haitien and stirring all of the ingredients together. The group called its product Medika Mamba and distributed it to local clinics.
Yet Wolff wasn’t satisfied.
“Why do you suppose those kids are malnourished?” she asked. “It’s because their parents have no money, and they have no money because they have no employment.”
One day, Wolff had an epiphany. MFK’s product might actually provide those much-needed jobs, if it were made locally, but on a much bigger scale.
By this time, about five years ago, peanut paste had become big business. UNICEF was buying millions of dollars worth of it every year for distribution in Haiti alone. But UNICEF was buying it from pristine, quality-controlled factories far away — mostly in France. The leading manufacturer is Nutriset, which is, based in Normandy. The peanuts came from Argentina, among other places.
Wolff decided MFK could become UNICEF’s supplier, with a factory right in Haiti, employing Haitian workers and buying peanuts from Haitian farmers.
It could be an example that others could follow, she thought.
Part of this dream is becoming reality.
The factory, just a few miles from the slums of Cap-Haitien, is filled with stainless steel machines spitting out little sealed packages of enriched peanut butter. Those packages will go to UNICEF or the World Food Program, and then to hospitals and clinics all over Haiti.
An even bigger impact of this local production might be felt in the countryside, among Haitian farmers who grow peanuts
The farmers are growing peanuts for MFK’s new peanut butter factory, and MFK is helping them do it more cheaply. The organization brought in a small tractor to help clear the fields and also sprayed the plants with a chemical that controls fungal diseases.
It’s crucial to produce high-quality peanuts, because one of the biggest problems with local production of RUTF in Haiti is the prevalence of peanuts contaminated with aflatoxins. These powerful toxins are “the bane of our existence,” says Rhoads.
More farmers want to join the program, which should mean more peanuts for MFK’s factory and more money in farmers’ pockets.
These local peanuts still cost too much, in large part because small Haitian farmers have so little machinery. They have to pay people to plant by hand, weed by hand and harvest the peanuts by hand.
But the big, long-term goal is to keep working with the peanut farmers, helping them grow more peanuts for less money.
They’ll make a lot of money and in the end, that’s the best way to make sure their children won’t go hungry.