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Matthews Company Makes Life-Saving Food For UNICEF, USAID

Malnutrition contributes to more than a third of deaths of children under five worldwide. For decades, these children had to be treated in in-patient clinics. But a peanut-based paste is making treatment more accessible, and it’s exploding in popularity. One of the companies that helps meet the demand is based in Matthews.

MANA Nutrition, headquartered in an old grist mill in downtown Matthews, makes something called Ready To Use Therapeutic Food, or RUTF. It comes in metallized polyester packets about the size of a deck of playing cards. MANA churns out up to a quarter of a million of these packets every day in its factory in Georgia’s peanut country.

RUTF was invented in 1996 by a French nutritionist who got the idea from his children’s affinity for Nutella hazelnut spread.

The peanut paste has a sweet taste that kids like, similar to the filling in a Reece’s Cup. It looks like lighter colored, gooeyer peanut butter, and it’s designed to be eaten straight from the package, at home. Before RUTF, the primary treatment for severe acute malnutrition was a powdered milk formula that had to be mixed with water. MANA founder Mark Moore explains it was effective, but it was also sometimes difficult to mix at home.

“So you might not mix it right, you don’t have a great shelf life. So the child comes in to a hospital, a feeding center type setting," he says.

With RUTF, parents pick up several days’ or weeks’ supply and take it home for their children. The packets have a shelf life of two years; they don’t have to be mixed with water or refrigerated; it’s made to be eaten straight from the package. This concept inspired MANA’s name: “Mother-Administered Nutritive Aid.”

Each packet of RUTF is 500 calories. The standard treatment is three packets a day for six weeks. James Okumu, a farmer and minister from Uganda visiting the U.S. to speak at a development conference, says he’s seen the treatment work.

“After the MANA has come in, you see a child who’s feeling so happy, a child who could not run can run, could not jump, a child who was so miserable in his or her life now starting feeling happy," he describes.

Because of RUTF’s versatility, relief organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are sending it to countries all over the world: Afghanistan, Burundi, The Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Matt Nims is deputy director of USAID’s Food for Peace program, which buys its food from American producers. He says MANA and two other companies are their primary suppliers, and they’re working to expand production.

“So we started out where we did about a thousand metric tons of production. This year, for 2014, we hope to do about 6,000 metric tons of the Ready to Use Therapeutic Food," Nims says.

That works out to just over six and a half million RUTF packets. It’s also about 10 percent of UNICEF’s goal. UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens’ Fund, distributes more than 80 percent of RUTF in the world. Jan Komskra is in charge of buying its supply. He says the growth of these little packets has been exponential.

“In 2006 we bought about 200,000 [treatments], while last year it was 2.4 million; so it has increased more than ten times in eight years,” he says.

UNICEF currently distributes RUTF in 56 countries. Komskra says the goal now is not to add more countries, but to expand the reach within those. And because RUTF is a relatively simple mixture to make, the organization is looking at ways to expand production of the life-saving peanut paste in countries where it’s used.

Of course, shiny packets of peanut paste from overseas are NOT the solution to ending all hunger.

“But for these kids, the ones who are going to die this week," Moore points out, "They don’t need rice, they don’t need an ag course, they don’t need their parents to get enrolled in the next 'how to manage your farm course.' They need a medicine, in effect, which stops the effects---which are deadly---of malnutrition.”

Aid organizations are working to educate people in poor countries about agriculture and nutrition, so that the infrastructure is in place for kids to stay healthy after they finish a 6-week RUTF treatment.