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Sunday, January 25, 2015

RI non-profit offers practical way to fight world malnutrition

URI students collaborate with local nonprofit Edesia to raise awareness of childhood malnutrition

KINGSTON, R.I., – A visit to some of the poorest countries in the world can reveal a tragedy for the innocents: stunted growth among children. The culprit is malnutrition, not getting enough to eat in the early years.

Now a group of University of Rhode Island students studying public relations is striving to end that problem by teaming up with Edesia, a local nonprofit that makes Plumpy’nut, a vitamin-packed peanut-butter blend hailed as a miracle food to fight childhood malnutrition.

And the students are spreading the word about the crisis – and raising money – through one of the most popular ways to communicate today: social media.

The project kicks off March 1, but preparations are well underway. On January 20, four students – David St. Amant, Kimberly DeLande, Kylie Rice, and Sergio Suhett  – toured Edesia’s Providence factory and came away determined to make the campaign a success.

“I’m so excited to be part of it,’’ says Suhett. “It’s a local project with a global impact. I want the whole state – the whole country – to know about Plumpy’nut.’’

The campaign is the brainchild of South Kingstown resident Kate O’Malley, an editor in publications and creative services at URI, and Regina Bell, a lecturer in public relations at the Harrington School of Communication and Media. 

O’Malley has a long commitment to philanthropic work. She’s founder of Irish Americans for Famine Relief, a campaign started in 2011 to honor the legacy of the Great Irish Famine. 

Through that drive, she raised $3,000 for Edesia, acclaimed worldwide for making Plumpy’nut and its similar lines, all distributed by humanitarian groups to children in countries plagued by war, famine or natural disasters.

Eager to get URI students involved in community service, O’Malley reached out to the nonprofit to ask if it would be interested in collaborating with URI students. #MakeYourGreenCount was born.

So far, students have created a Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram account, and fundraising page . The goal is to raise as much money as possible during March, hence the connection to the hashtag’s “green’’ in honor of St. Patrick’s Day March 17.

People will be asked to donate $5 and challenge 10 others to do the same, for a total of $55, the cost of a life-saving seven-week treatment of Plumpy’nut. The students will enlist other students, alumni, business leaders and public officials, and they’ll also contact Irish groups and pubs, encouraging them to include #MakeYourGreenCount in their March festivities.

“We’re really excited to be involved in such a meaningful project,’’ said O’Malley. “Students are helping combat childhood malnutrition and getting some great hands-on experience in the communications field.’’

The project exemplifies URI’s goals to connect students with businesses as part of experiential learning, embrace the global community and engage in community service.

"We intend to encourage people to ‘get their green on’ with their challenge posts,’’ said Bell. “We’ll have photos and messages people can easily upload, or they can get creative and post their own photos or videos."

Edesia, the sole maker of Plumpy’nut in the United States, opened in 2010. So far, 2.5 million children have been helped in 44 countries as varied as Chad, Pakistan and The Central African Republic.
Some 220 million children suffer from malnutrition, a malady that not only kills, but also causes serious health problems. Besides stunting growth, poor nutrition can damage intellectual development and even lead to blindness.

One of the remarkable things about Plumpy’nut – a sweet-tasting paste made of peanut butter, milk powder, vegetable oil, sugar, minerals and vitamins – is that it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, nor does it need to be cooked or mixed with water, which is unreliable in many developing countries. The ready-to-eat food also has a two-year shelf life – crucial in tropical climates.

To keep up with demand, Edesia is relocating in 2016 to a new and bigger factory in Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown, allowing the nonprofit to help 2 million children a year, up from 800,000. The nonprofit is also expected to hire more workers, many of whom are refugees who resettled in the United States.

“We’re so grateful that these URI students are passionate about helping us raise awareness and funds for this important cause,’’ said Heidi Reed, communications manager for Edesia. “I’m impressed by their enthusiasm and commitment.’’

For Suhett and the other students, Plumpy’nut’s simplicity – it can be eaten directly from the squeezable foil package – is among many of its appealing qualities. Plus, the results are swift: Children eating Plumpy’nut show improvement in a few days, with a full recovery in less than two months.

“It tastes good – like peanut butter cups,’’ says Suhett. “There is no way someone could not like it.’’

The campaign offers Suhett a chance to help impoverished children and get practical experience in his major, public relations.

“I have a passion for helping people,’’ says Suhett, a former case manager for AIDS Project Rhode Island. “This project caught my attention because of the children. I’m a firm believer there is no reason any child in the world should go hungry and die from malnutrition.’’

He hopes to reach out to First Lady Michelle Obama, a champion of healthy eating. “Maybe we’ll go viral,’’ he said, “like the Ice Bucket Challenge.’’

Rice knows firsthand what hunger looks like. A few years ago, she volunteered for two weeks at an orphanage in Ghana. The daily meal was a bowl of porridge and a few crackers. Some kids got a slice of bread. 

“It was so sad to see the children go most of the day with nothing to eat,’’ she said. “Plumpy’nut could have made a difference. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work on this amazing project.’’

St. Amant is energized by the nonprofit’s commitment to hiring refugees, many of whom have fled war-torn countries. “That’s powerful,’’ he said.

The project gives DeLande a chance to give back and apply what she’s learned in her public relations classes at URI. “It’s amazing to find something like Edesia in Rhode Island,’’ she says. “We have small hometown roots in this state, but we want to do so many big things.’’

One pub owner who has already signed up is Tara Mulroy, owner of Tara’s Tipperary Tavern in Matunuck, the oldest Irish pub in Rhode Island. “We do a lot of charity work, and this is a fantastic event for our pub to be involved in. I think it’s also great that this campaign is happening in our own backyard.’’

If all goes as planned, #MakeYourGreenCount will extend beyond the picket fence to the world.

Pictured above:
University of Rhode Island students at the Edesia factory in Providence. Seated, Kimberly DeLande (on left) and Kylie Rice. Standing Sergio Suhett (on left) and David St. Amant.

At Edesia factory, left to right, Heidi Reed, communications manager for Edesia, David St. Amant, Sergio Suhett, Kimberly DeLande and Kylie Rice.

Photos by Nora Lewis.