As you know, I am a day behind in blogging about my spring break trip with the Honors College.
Yesterday was insanely busy. I didn’t get a chance to sit down and rest until after 10:00 p.m. and by that time I wanted to sleep seeing as how we left Charlotte this morning at 5.
Yesterday morning we awoke, having slept the night in David Todd Harmon’s house, and went to the MANA house. The MANA house is an old house that has been converted into a suite of offices for MANA. Mark Moore, who I mentioned in the previous post, is the CEO and co-founder of MANA. MANA stands for Mother Assisted Nutritional Aid. It is also, of course, the food that God sent from Heaven to feed the Israelites as they wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The ethos behind MANA is that God is a God who feeds his children. MANA is working to make that possible.
We met up with Mark at the MANA house (where the bathrooms are labeled “Mana” and “Womana”) where we talked with Mark all morning about the genesis of MANA.
A few years ago, when Mark was working in Washington D.C. for a senator from Louisiana, he went to a meeting in which UNICEF showed a 60 Minutes clip of Anderson Cooper talking about this wonder-food called RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Food) that basically brought people who were Severely Acutely Malnourished (SAM) back from the brink of death. Mark assured us that hardly anyone over six years old starves. Adults and older children have s decent lag time, and can usually find food. They may be very hungry, but they won’t starve. Babies and small children, however, are a different matter. Sometimes it is a matter of hours. Therefore, starving babies and children need quick access to a food that doesn’t require cold-storage (no fridges in starving villages in sub-saharan Africa), that doesn’t require prep with water (chances of finding clean water are iffy), and that doesn’t require a doctor to administer (not a ton of those around either, hence MANA’s “M” which stands for “mother”). The food is peanut butter, sugar, oil, powdered milk, and vitamins. If every child who was SAM could get this food, then people would stop dying of starvation. RUTF is seen as an emergency food by prescription to hold people over until systemic change can occur, allowing folks to have proper access to food until real change can occur.
When Mark saw the video, he realized that he could do that. He did some research and discovered that no one in the United States was making the stuff. The reason? Well, here are two of those reasons:
1. There was a French company making the stuff under the name “plumpy’nut” who had patented the RUTF. This patent prevented anyone else from making it. It also prevented potential partners, like UNICEF, from buying it and distributing it.
2. It isn’t profitable. Companies need to make money. Poor people, while a large swath of the population, do not have the means to purchase many products. It is not profitable for businesses to create products designed for poor people—products like RUTF. The image below is a replication of something Mark drew for us that highlighted this problem. The very rich have tremendous purchasing power—they can buy anything they want. The poor do not.
Mark, by the grace of God, got connected with a patent lawyer who went to work (donating the hours) on dealing with the patent question. He argued that the patent wouldn’t hold up in court because this French company hadn’t invented the formula—that belonged to a Doctors Without Borders doctor—and so anyone who could read the New England Journal of Medicine—where the case studies of the initial trials of RUTF were published—could mix up a batch of the stuff. This lawyer convinced UNICEF that the patent problem wasn’t a problem. UNICEF then said, “great! we have 120 million dollars to spend on the stuff if you can make it.” So, Mark’s next task was getting the stuff made. He tried talking to every peanut butter company in the US, all to no avail. They declined for a variety of reasons. Somehow, Mark had to get the peanut butter. He finally had a meeting with a company based in Fitzgerald Georgia called American Blanching Company. ABC agreed to supply the peanut butter. They also agreed to help MANA build a factory of its own to mix the peanut butter with the powdered milk, sugar, vitamins, and oil. They even agreed to put up the first few million to get MANA running. All MANA needed to do was find several more million. Long story short, MANA found funders who put up the money—and continue to put up the money—to allow MANA to make RUTF in bulk in their new factory also based in Fitzgerald. And that’s how things are now. MANA produces RUTF which they distribute to UNICEF, Samaritan’s Purse, and other relief agencies with the infrastructure to distribute it. The future hope is to widen production and distribution. MANA wants to build factories in countries which need RUTF. They also want to begin producing Ready to Use Supplemental Food (RUSF)—food which targets those who are on the road to being SAM, but who are not there yet. The image to the right is picture of Mark’s “mind map” for MANA.
Mark also made some interesting connections to our adventure in Dallas with CitySquare. He told us that half the world was stuffed and half the world was starving, and that both were dying. The food problems that America suffers from are problems like heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. A large group of Americans are Severely Acutely Over-nourished (SAO) and many are heading that direction, while in the developing world many are Severely Acutely Malnourished (SAM) and many are heading that direction. He argued that we shouldn’t want to lose calories—we should want to give them away. Plenty of food is available in South Dallas, just not the kind people need. I’m very glad he provided us that bridge in which to think through the two parts of the trip.
After out morning session with Mark, we went to lunch at a local Mexican food place with the staff of MANA. Lunch was delicious—not nearly as good as Mexican food in Texas but, hey, the North Carolinians certainly tried—and then we wandered around downtown Matthews for a bit (MANA is actually in Matthews, a suburb of Charlotte) and got some coffee at a delightful coffee shop. After this adventure, we returned to the MANA house where we again spoke at length with Mark. Mark introduced us to David Johnson, head of a non-profit called Silent Images. Their website is here. Silent Images sends out teams of photographers and videographers to aid small non-profits who don’t have their own people in creating a visual story. He spoke with us about what he does, how he got started, and more philosophically about how people can help. He left to go take some photos and we sat down with Mark again. This time Mark talked more philosophically as well.
He started with a question asked by Peter Singer, an ethics professor at Princeton: If you are walking along the road and you see a little girl drowning in the lake, do you go to her aid? The answer is, of course, yes. Do you first take off your shoes and roll up your good pants? No. Of course not. Her life matters more than your shoes. Singer repeats this question in a variety of ways. In some scenarios your most precious possession is destroyed if you help save a life. In others, you yourself are not able to intervene, but you can compel others to. In every situation, the answer people give is “yes! of course we have to help!” If this is the case, asks Singer, why are there starving children in Africa? If we have an obligation, and we have the means (which we do, Singer assures us) why is anyone dying from starvation, preventable diseases, or lack of clean water? This is a tough question, and one that we wrestled with for a good while. We talked about to whom we are first obligated. Are we more obligated to our immediate neighbors than to starving people in Africa? Is CitySquare more valuable than MANA? Conversely, are we more obligated to fight the more urgent need? Sure, people in South Dallas are hungry and are part of an unsustainable economy, but no one in Dallas starves to death. Is MANA, then, more important than CitySquare? We asked questions about effectiveness, about the notion of “just do something” versus wanting to do no harm, and therefore not acting. We used the Invisible Children controversy as a touchstone for this conversation. The discussion around these questions, fueled by real life stuff we had seen this week, was awesome.
We then took a short break in which we were able to speak with David Todd over Skype. We then gathered for a final hour of conversation. In this final talk, Mark discussed his personal motivation. This got deep into the Jesus stuff. Mark set up this really neat theological notion of Kingdom. What is the Kingdom of God? Well, it’s most certainly not the pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-bye-and-bye notion we’ve all heard. We aren’t waiting to be taken to the Kingdom one day. Additionally, we are not writing for the Kingdom to get here. Jesus said the Kingdom was at hand. It is within us and among us. Mark asked what on earth this meant. It means, says Mark, that the Kingdom is the rule and reign of God coming on the earth, and it starts in hearts. Think about it this way: we walk around all day in the kingdom of us (I will use myself as an example). The kingdom of Greg is 5’8” and extends a few feet in a circle. Within that circle, I have absolute control (most of the time). I live my life seeking to expand my circle of control to the world around me. I create a cushion. Defenses. I have an apartment that protects me from the elements. A computer that lets me extend the influence of my ideas to others. A job which gives me resources to do what I want. I have my own ministry of defense and ministry of health. What the scriptures point out, though, is that the kingdom of Greg is unsustainable. It is a kingdom of violence (I want to impose my way), a kingdom of selfishness, pride, and apathy toward others. The kingdom of Greg protects Greg all while smothering his soul (not the immortal platonic sense, but in the “part of you that is essentially you” sense). What Jesus offers is to take over running us. He seeks to change us into the Kingdom of Jesus. This means a different way of living, a way of living not beholden to the powers and principalities of this world. A way of living in which the sick are healed, the blind can see, the lame can walk, the hungry are fed, the mourning have joy, the first are last, etc. . . And so, when we gather with others who are also ruled by Jesus, the Kingdom expands. MANA, then, is an extension of Kingdom of Jesus. A different way of doing life. A giving way. A sacrificial healing, resurrection way. This is what Mark is up to.
After this final talk with Mark we gathered with his church family to eat and to worship. After that, we went home to sleep in preparation for today’s early morning. It was, truly, a marvelous day.
I will post today’s events on the blog tomorrow. Tomorrow, we are going to Jacksonville Florida where we will spend the afternoon on the beach before flying back to Dallas early on Saturday morning.