Summer 2017

Next-Gen Food Aid

These emergency meals are new, improved and engineered to save lives.

By Julie Flaherty

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Photos: Vito Aluia

Every year, the U.S. Agency for International Development sends more than a million tons of food to malnourished people around the world, most of them children. When USAID wanted to update its food-aid products to reflect the latest nutrition research, it turned to the experts at the Friedman School. Since 2009, the Food Aid Quality Review team, led by Patrick Webb, the Alexander McFarlane Professor of Nutrition, and Professor Beatrice Rogers, has been analyzing everything from micronutrient levels to supply-chain efficiencies to whether the food is ending up in the right bellies. While the work continues, these are a few of the team’s initial recommendations already put into action. “All these small, smart changes add up to better outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable populations,” Webb said.

Designed for growth

Corn-soy blend, a dry mix that cooks up into a nutritious porridge, has been a go-to food-aid product for more than 40 years. The Tufts team recommended adding whey protein from milk, which contains growth factors, a small change that can make a big difference for the more than 150 million children now at risk of poor growth

Locally sourced

The researchers are looking into new porridge mixes, including a sorghum-cowpea blend, which could better suit local tastes and even be grown in the area. One benefit is that sorghum and cowpeas come in non-GMO varieties, which could be useful in such countries as Zambia where there are rules against growing or importing genetically modified foods.

Packed with healthy fats

The researchers wanted to give people more fat to boost calories and help them absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in the porridges. The ideal way, they reasoned, would be to hand out vitamin A and D fortified oil to mix in. Some humanitarian groups have favored mixes with fat included, because they worried caregivers might sell oil or use it for other cooking, but the Tufts team didn’t see that in field tests. A bonus: The fresh oil makes the porridge taste better.

Ready to eat

Researchers added two new peanut-based products to the USAID lineup. These pastes can be consumed right out of the package without mixing or cooking.

Easy to understand

While testing the new products in Sierra Leone, the researchers discovered that even wordless instructions can be confusing. Among the changes on the improved label: arrows to show the order of the steps, a darkened color for oil that resembles the local variety, and a more common water icon.

Topped off with vitamins

Among many micronutrient changes, the researchers added potassium and more zinc, which help children grow and recover from malnutrition. They also switched to a more easily absorbed form of iron—they could include less, which saved money, too—and added vitamin K to prevent deficiencies caused by intestinal illness common to refugee camps, natural disaster zones and other areas with poor sanitation.

Optimized for distribution

For many years, the standard package for the porridge mixes was a 55-pound bag (seen in the background here) that would get divided in the field. The new packages (at left) are about 3 pounds—roughly the right size for one child for two weeks. They’re more expensive to pack, but quicker and more sanitary to distribute. In tests, the beneficiaries also found it more dignified than having to scoop from tubs.

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