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Raising the Red Flag: Edesia Seeks an End to Childhood Malnutrition

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and Founders League are collaborating to showcase local companies pioneering new health and wellness solutions. The diversity of these companies captures the depth of activity happening across Rhode Island’s startup scene and highlights the global impact these companies are already having on the world. Below is the second in a nine-part blog series on these special local companies.

Childhood malnutrition is a complex and heartbreaking global reality for over 220 million children. It can be either life threatening, chronic, or somewhere in between. Over three million children a year needlessly lose their lives to malnutrition; the remaining malnourished children under the age of five are likely to have mental and physical deficits that last a lifetime. A chronically malnourished child is more likely to do poorly in school, get sick more often, and, without intending to, reinforce generational cycles of poverty.

Enter Edesia. Working at the intersection of nutritional science, innovative manufacturing and creative approaches to on-the-ground support for at-risk children, Edesia is a leader in emergency food-aid and preventive nutrition in the United States...all through a humble suite of products - first developed by Nutriset in France - that are easily shipped and distributed, require no refrigeration, and have a 2-year shelf life.

Edesia began in 2007 when native New Englander Navyn Salem saw the potential to treat large numbers of severely malnourished children with Plumpy’Nut, a revolutionary product that Nutriset launched in 1996. Her work to build a factory that would make Plumpy’Nut and stimulate the local economy began in Tanzania, where her father’s family had lived for three generations before he moved to study abroad in the U.S.

After handing off the Tanzania factory to local leadership, Navyn established Edesia as a non- profit food manufacturer in Providence, R.I. in 2009. As one of Nutriset’s seven PlumpyField partners worldwide, Edesia now produces over 8,500 metric tons of peanut-based, ready-to-use therapeutic and supplementary foods each year for organizations working in emergencies, conflict zones, and geographic regions that are food insecure. These foods, which are delivered in portable, foil sachets, are currently in use with humanitarian groups such as UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP), and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Collectively, Edesia and all of the PlumpyField partners are reaching about five million malnourished children annually.

PlumpyNut is just one product in the range of ready-to-use foods developed by Nutriset. It saves a child’s life in about seven weeks for only $55. A small price to save a live and stave off the devastating long-term health consequences of malnutrition. Edesia makes several products that target various stages of malnutrition in young children—from treatment of the severest cases of acute malnutrition to prevention of chronic malnutrition in young children and pregnant and lactating women. For example, while Plumpy’Nut is used in emergency situations, Edesia’s Enov’Nutributter enriches children’s available food with essential micro-nutrients and fatty acids for the critical months between the end of exclusive breastfeeding and two years of age.

Fueled by the vision to build stronger communities through nourishing as many children as possible, Edesia uses an award-winning workforce development approach to make good on this commitment. At their factory in Providence--which began operations in 2010--Edesia employs people from 23 countries of origin, including countries where Edesia’s products are distributed. The team includes more than 70 full-time staff, having grown by 28% in 2014. In 2015, Edesia was awarded the Manufacturing Award for Workplace Development and Productivity by Providence Business News.

“Our mission is a part of everything we do at Edesia. For many of our employees, they know firsthand the critical importance of our work, and that has a huge impact on our ability to reach our goals,” says Edesia Executive Director Maria Kasparian, who co-founded the company with Navyn. “We are proud to be here in Providence, where we can have local impact while serving a global community of children in need.”

Beyond creating jobs in New England and strengthening the U.S. economy through the steady procurement of peanuts, milk powder, whey, sugar, oils, packaging materials, etc., Edesia is committed to education and public outreach in the United States. A large part of their work is raising the red flag that global childhood malnutrition is an urgent issue, affecting all of us. By conducting frequent tours for local elementary, middle, and high schools as well as colleges and universities, Edesia provides an outlet for interested teachers and students to learn more about the issue of childhood malnutrition.

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