Westporter fights chronic malnutrition in Guatemala with edible insects
At the end of her hour-long trek up a steep hill and through the fields, Westport native Gabby Wimer is met by grateful residents in the rural Guatemalan village of Candelaria.
What motivated the recent college grad? The thought of teaching the villagers how to sustainably farm protein-rich insects.
Wimer, along with Joyce Lu and Elizabeth Frank, the co-founders of MealFlour, has been working to reduce chronic malnutrition in Guatemala, a country with the fourth-highest rate in the world. Based in Quetzaltenango, the second largest Guatemalan city, MealFlour promotes better nutrition by providing instruction on how to set up and maintain farms of mealworms, the edible larval form of a beetle.
Although still in early stages, the enterprise has received favorable reactions from families, including the children.
“Their kids come up during the home visits and are telling us about the mealworm farm and are super excited about it,” Wimer said. “They want to help out with it, too.”
In November 2015, when the three women were seniors at the University of Chicago, they teamed up to enter the international Hult Prize competition, which awards $1 million to a group of college entrepreneurs with a business that seeks to address the world’s most pressing issues. They decided to tackle nutrition because all three have a background and an interest in global health: Lu spent time in Quetzaltenango working with a nutrition program, Wimer worked in Rwanda to improve reproductive health and Frank had a stint researching household air pollution in Nigeria.
In an anthropology of food class during her junior year, Wimer completed a group project that would serve as the foundation for their startup.
Why eat mealworms? (via mealflour.org)
Edible Insects: 80% of the world already eats insects!
Nutrition: Mealworm flour contains high levels of essential amino and fatty acids and is 55.4% protein, making it more than twice as efficient as the equivalent serving of beef.
Environment: Unlike traditional livestock, Mealworms require little space, food, and water to thrive. They are maintained in tiered, vertical farms about a square foot around, ideal for most crowded setting. MealFlour farms can be constructed from up-cycled materials, the mealworms themselves eat organic food waste, and the mealworm frass makes a great plant fertilizer. By integrating into local communities, MealFlour minimizes the costs and emissions associated with transportation that are needed to supply neighborhoods with quality protein.
“My final group project was on edible insects so we started talking about that since there is a big report that came out of the (United Nations) basically saying that edible insects was probably one of the main ways we would be able to address food insecurity and work to combat hunger and malnutrition in a lot of different parts of the world,” the 22-year-old said.
Frank, Lu and Wimer all liked the idea of using edible insects for their project and all three had eaten insects before in different forms, including whole ones plain or roasted with lime juice and salt.
“Despite the gross factor, they were pretty good,” Wimer said. “They don’t have too much of a flavor actually and they’re just super crunchy.”
When mealworms — toasted and dehydrated — are ground into flour, the substance is easy to incorporate into recipes and was the reason why Frank, Lu and Wimer settled on mealworm flour. In their powder form, mealworms are 55 percent protein and have a substantial amount of iron, even more than beef. Mealworms also require a lot less space, food and water than traditional livestock to farm.
The trio made it to the Hult Prize Regional Finals in Boston, Mass. and although they did not win the competition, they received constructive feedback and had already entered into other competitions. After earning funding from the Resolution Project Social Venture Challenge, the Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge and the College New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago, the group realized they had enough money to implement the project.
Over the summer, while Wimer was busy setting up mealworm farms at Wakeman Town Farm, Frank went to Guatemala to gauge the level of interest for MealFlour. People in Guatemala were receptive to the idea and enjoyed eating the mealworm cookies. Lu and Wimer booked their tickets to Guatemala and started in September; Frank joined them some weeks back.
Twice a week, the entrepreneurs walk to Candelaria where they work with five women. Over the six-week class, the trio explains why mealworms are a good source of protein, why they are an easy and low cost way to have protein at home, the life stages of the mealworm, how to build and maintain a mealworm farm and how to cook and prepare the mealworms.
“We’re bringing some of the mealworm powder that we already have and teaching them how to make banana pancakes with them. So, once their farm is producing a regular supply of mealworms, they have some recipes that they can use to cook with,” Wimer said.
The entire program spans six months because after the classes the entrepreneurs conduct home visits and check on how their students are cooking with mealworms and seeing what recipes they have come up with.
Eating mealworms addresses chronic malnutrition which is distinct from acute malnutrition (people who are extremely skinny). Chronic malnutrition is a lack of protein, vitamins and minerals in a diet which results in stunted growth, Wimer said.
“A lot of the kids you see you think are five or six and they’re really 10 years old just because they aren’t getting enough of the things that they need in their diet,” she said. “That can also lead to developmental issues and problems in school later on because of the stunting.”
MealFlour also conducted a three-day crash course for 43 university students and 29 of them signed up to do the full six-month program starting in 2017. Although currently limited to women, Wimer said MealFlour could start training some men as they expand to other communities.