Winter 2017

Biscuits That Could Change Lives

A nutritional supplement developed at Tufts is helping people in one West African village feed their children and earn a living.

By Monica Jimenez

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Children at the Dandu school that Tufts researchers helped create. photo: International Partnership for Human Development

When Tufts nutritionist Susan Roberts went to the small village of Dandu in Guinea-Bissau, on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, to test nutritional supplements for mothers, infants and children, she could have been satisfied with gathering data about the health of the population. Instead, she decided to throw her arms around the community.

With partners at Tufts and elsewhere, she’s involved in a multipronged mission to help the village thrive by creating new ways for the 800 residents to eat, learn and make a living. Dandu, a subsistence farming community, doesn’t have electricity; there are no stores, and you won’t find any cars there either.

On her first visit to Dandu two years ago, Roberts, a professor at the Friedman School, discovered that the typical diet is 80 to 90 percent rice. Cassava root is also a staple, with the occasional fish or meat from a small animal. Villagers grow and sell cashews to buy fabric for clothes, aluminum for roofs and more rice. Many children are short and thin, and some have orange hair, the sign of a protein deficiency that causes normally dark hair to lose its pigment.

“Our goal is not just to keep kids alive, but to help them thrive—physically, mentally—for long-term health.”

The conventional food supplement she was testing was supposed to provide better nutrition, but many of the micronutrients absent from the Dandu diet were not in the supplement, said Roberts, who also directs the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. “When I looked at it, I thought, This isn’t the complete formulation, surely,” she said.

Dandu residents prepare the new nutritional biscuits. Photo: International Partnership for Human Development

The World Health Organization standard for the supplement is designed to increase the most essential nutrients and keep kids alive. Roberts wondered whether standard supplements could reverse the cognitive decline or impaired metabolism and immune function caused by malnutrition. To address that, she has developed what she hopes is a more complete food supplement. (Tufts has applied for a patent on Roberts’ supplement.) She began testing it in Dandu in January and will assess its effectiveness over six months. “Our goal is not just to keep kids alive, but to help them thrive—physically, mentally—for long-term health,” she said.

Rather than handing out packets of the new supplement, which comes as a paste, Roberts is taking the project a step further. Aided by a $200,000 grant and business expertise from philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Schawbel, Roberts will buy the ingredients used to make the supplement, such as peanuts from West African farmers, and pay local bakers to make special biscuits containing the supplement. Then she’ll hire local workers to distribute them.

Not only will the supplement help improve the villagers’ nutritional status, the local production and distribution of it will stimulate the economy and enable villagers to continue production even after the six-month trial has ended, Roberts said.

Schawbel, founder of the Schawbel Corp. and CEO of Schawbel Technologies, which manufactures heated insoles and hand warmers, visited Dandu with Roberts last year during a trial of the supplement production system.

He asked the villagers if they could increase production. “They said, ‘Oh yeah, our wives could work with us,’ ” Schawbel said. “I said, ‘Could you deliver some baked goods to other villages?’ And they said, ‘Our kids on bikes could do that.’ I said, ‘Now there’s a business.’ ”

Roberts has been working to fortify Dandu in other ways. When she found out that the villagers desperately wanted their children to be educated, she and her colleagues including Sai Das, N02, an assistant professor, and Andrew Greenberg, the Atkins Professor in Nutrition and Metabolism, privately raised $7,000, and the villagers built Dandu’s first elementary school; it now has 200 students. Nina Schlossman, J75, N86, founder and president of Global Food and Nutrition, and John Whetten, former CEO of Challenge Dairy, also contributed. They’re trying to raise another $7,000 to build two more classrooms.

As discerning as she is about what goes into food supplements, Roberts is just as picky when it comes to food for thought. Looking to start a library at the school, Roberts pored over American children’s books and found them lacking. “Our books are [about]… things they’ve never even seen,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to find culturally appropriate books for beginning readers in subsistence farming villages.”

“We’re combining what we hope is a superior nutritional formulation with educational enrichment to see how far we can push the envelope to help these kids turn into exceptional students.”

With the help of  the Global Literacy Collaborative and a seed grant from the university, Roberts is collaborating with locals to gather Dandu’s history, songs and proverbs, which will be translated and turned into reading material that will be offered to students on tablet devices. Roberts has already brought a handful of tablets to the village to show children how to use them, and distributed a 30-page text about the history of Dandu.

“We’re combining what we hope is a superior nutritional formulation with educational enrichment to see how far we can push the envelope to help these kids turn into exceptional students,” she said.

Schawbel hopes to eventually expand access to the food supplement, helping villages around the world improve their health, educate their children and create a sustainable income for themselves. “With this one simple biscuit, I think we can make a major change in the world,” he said.

The villagers of Dandu “are rich in everything except material goods,” Roberts said. “They are a very worthy people to help. And what else are we here for other than to do some good in the world?”

Contact Monica Jimenez at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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