MFK’s Tom Stehl featured in Des Moines Register Article

The Des Moines Register featured MFK and Des Moines-native Tom Stehl in an article in Tuesday’s newspaper.

To read the story at the Des Moines Register website, click here.

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Iowan at St. Louis nonprofit helps nourish Haiti children

Des Moines Register
By REID FORGRAVE
rforgrave@dmreg.com
January 26, 2010

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing good about the situation in Haiti. But disaster can bring opportunity — and that’s where Tom Stehl comes in.

The 31-year-old graduate of Des Moines Hoover High School and Drake University works for Meds and Food for Kids, a St. Louis nonprofit founded by a professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine of St. Louis.

Its goal: Save the lives of malnourished Haitian children. Its method: Medika Mamba, an energy-dense superfood, translated in Haitian Creole to mean “peanut-butter medicine.”

The food is central to a program aimed at lifting Haitian children out of a malnutrition epidemic that’s long plagued the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It has the consistency of honey and the taste of peanut butter. It’s made of peanut butter, sugar, vegetable oil, milk powder and a vitamin and mineral compound.

Meds and Food for Kids produces 6,610 pounds a week in Haiti. The amount is enough to treat some 300 malnourished children; it is distributed regularly to health clinics across the nation.

The organization also encourages long-term development by using raw materials – mostly peanuts, which are grown by the poorest of Haiti’s poor – from small-scale farmers, and by using Haitian labor.

“Part of my heart is there, and it’s hard not to be on the ground, but this is an opportunity for us to get the story out when people care about Haiti,” said Stehl, operations coordinator for the nonprofit.

Stehl has visited Haiti 20 times the past two years.

“After these numerous waves of crises hit Haiti, we have to ask where to go from here, and how the country can even start to rebuild itself,” he said. “This can be a centerpiece of that answer.”

Process begins when child goes to clinic

Here’s how the program works: The parent of a malnourished child takes the child to a health clinic. Nurses take the child’s height and weight and determine whether the child should be admitted.

The child gets Amoxicillin and an anti-worm drug called Albendazole, then is sent home with 6.6 pounds of Medika Mamba. After two weeks on Medika Mamba, the child returns for a check-up, then is given more Medika Mamba.

The process continues until the child reaches proper height and weight.

The program has grown rapidly. The program has reached 13,000 malnourished children since 2004. In 2008, some 4,000 Haitian children were put through the regimen, then another 5,500 in 2009.

That’s not much, Stehl said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of malnourished children in Haiti, and we strive to reach them all,” he said. “For children who are so unfortunate to have fallen into the pit of malnutrition, it’s just awful.”

When the earthquake struck, the nonprofits’ stateside administrators wondered about how their operations in Haiti stood.

Overall, Meds and Foods for Kids came out relatively unscathed. Its 5,000-square-foot facility, about 150 miles north of Port-au-Prince, was fine, although the supervisor was injured when a wall fell on him.

But a container with $80,000 worth of raw materials for Medika Mamba was in a Haitian seaport when the earthquake hit. The container was lost – a big deal for an organization with a $500,000 annual budget.

Suppliers pledged to replace the materials free of charge, and now Stehl is working on getting the materials into bordering Dominican Republican, across the damaged roads of Haiti, and to the production facility.

Nation is among least-developed

Malnutrition was widespread in Haiti before the earthquake.

Haiti is one of the least-developed countries in the world, ranking 149th among the world’s 182 nations, according to the United Nations Human Development Index. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 58 percent of Haiti’s 9 million people are undernourished.

Stehl knows the earthquake will likely make the malnutrition picture in Haiti a bit darker.

Meds and Food for Kids is currently working on a relationship with the Seed Science Center at Iowa State University to research peanut seed varieties that could better work in Haiti’s poor soil, and the organization is hoping to expand its Haitian operations. It had embarked on a $1.5 million capital campaign before the earthquake to build a larger production facility.

But the point isn’t just saving individual lives in Haiti by pumping malnourished kids full of nutrient-dense food. Meds and Food for Kids aims to ensure the next generation of Haitians has less of a societal problem with malnutrition.

That, Stehl knows, is what takes work.

“It’s not food aid,” Stehl said. “We have to keep in mind the kids this is targeted to, the severely malnourished children between 6 months and 5 years. We’re not dropping this stuff out of an airplane.”