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Operation Calorie Drop: the UN's Weapons Against East African Hunger are Power Bars and "Nutella"

To bring food to the ten million people starving in eastern Africa, the UN World Food Program is airlifting and driving a dependable weapon in the world's war on the worst famine in ages: five tons of energy bars and knock-off Nutella. The High...

by Kimberly Haddad
Jul 28 2011, 2:23pm

To bring food to the ten million people starving in eastern Africa, the UN World Food Program is airlifting and driving a dependable weapon in the world’s war on the worst famine in ages: five tons of energy bars and knock-off Nutella.

The High Energy Biscuits and “Plumpy Supplement” aren’t your typical backpacker fare. The energy-dense wheat-derived biscuits provide 450 calories, 10 grams of fat and 15 grams of protein, which is enough to supplant the region’s subsidized rice and bananas. Even better, the pleasant peanut potion – containing a grand total of 34.5 grams of fat, 12.7 grams of protein, and 534 calories per packet – appears to be rather delicious. Combine that aspect with its consistency, and you’ve got a rather revolutionary weapon in the war on famine.

Invented by a French doctor using a jar of Nutella and some trial and error, Plumpy – also known under the brand name Plumpy’nut – consists of a limp, gooey substance with a peanut butter taste and containing enough nutrients to cure severe malnutrition, enabling weight gain and supporting a healthier eating regimen in the span of a month; by eating Plumpy’nut, badly malnourished babies can gain one to two pounds each week, or roughly 454 grams to 907 grams. The miracle blend of peanut paste, veggie fat, soy protein isolates, whey, and cocoa is so valued by developing countries and food aid organizations (including Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health) that its been “counterfeited” in factories in Haiti and elsewhere to the chagrin of patent owner Nutriset.

Since the packets of Plumpy first came into the hands of relief organizations during the Darfur crisis in Sudan, they have revolutionized emergency care for severely malnourished children around the world. Because it can be eaten by children who are not capable of taking solid food – and because children love it – the food has taken medical care out of crowded field hospitals and put it into mothers’ homes. The prescription given mothers, writes the Times: “Give one baby two packets of Plumpy’nut each day. Watch him wolf them down. Wait for him to grow. Which he will, almost immediately.” Milton Tectonidis, a nutrition specialist for Médecins Sans Frontières, says that “this product, it’s beyond opinion; it’s documented; it’s scientific fact. We’ve seen it working. With this one product, we can treat three-quarters of children on an outpatient basis.”

According to the New York Times, the UN anticipates to reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million starving Somalis. A recent drought, which has affected almost a third of the country's population, along with a two-decade civil war has forced the country to rock bottom as agricultural production has all but disappeared.

UN agencies are asking for $1.6 billion from other countries to bring forward the process, but you can help too by donating to World Vision.

Here are the World Food Program’s main weapons against hunger:

Fortified Blended Foods

Cereals containing enough vitamins and minerals to reduce starvation.

Micronutrient Powder

A combination of 16 vitamins and minerals that can be sprinkled on to cooked foods for enhanced nutrients.

High Energy Biscuits

Wheat-based bars that provide 450 kcal of energy and 10 grams of protein.

Compressed Food Bars

A supplement to local food when treating moderate malnutrition.

Ready To Use Foods

A blend of nutrients used in emergency operations or to prevent moderate malnutrition.

Supplementary Plumpy

A “revolutionary” peanut-based supplement used to treat younger children who cannot take solid foods, and the subject of a global patent debate.

Date Bars

Energy snack pack filled with Vitamin A.

Food Basket

A basket containing flour or rice, lentils, salt and vegetable oil.

See more on these occasionally delicious, always heroic foods at the UN WFP website.

All photos via World Food Program

-Kimberly Haddad