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Global Health MAP International Thought Leader Uncategorized

Food as medicine


Michael Nyenhuis, President and CEO of MAP International

Atlanta is known as a center of global health activity. We are anchored in a state with a strong agricultural base, as well.

What do these two things have in common?

A boy in a red shirt. Let me explain.

My organization, MAP International in one part of a much larger global health community here. To quote our mission statement, we provide medicines, prevent disease and promote health. If that is so then why do find ourselves involved in so many agriculture programs helping communities grow more food?

I often get asked that question (even by my board of directors). I have a good answer, but have recently found an even better one. It comes from an American doctor who recently served for a week at a clinic MAP built in the village of Kobedi, Ghana.

This doctor met a young man suffering from abdominal pain. The doctor could not determine the cause. Even the malaria test was negative. Then, a local physician assistant named Earnestine talked to the young man further. Afterwards, the doctor wrote about what they had found:

It seems that the boy in the red shirt has no mother as she left the home after being frequently physically abused by his father. The father is an alcoholic who does not work and now takes out his frustrations on the family. The young man now lives in the streets and the only thing in this world that he owns is the shirt on his back.

Earnestine tells this to the learned American doctor, He is hungry doctor. His abdominal pain is because he is hungry. He has not eaten in 3 days and I told him we have no food, only medicines. He says he will take the medicines!

Time stands still as the person in the red shirt comes into view. Ernestine goes on to tell me that this is a common occurrence and not unusual in the least.

The young man felt weak and ill. Well, of course he did. He had not eaten in three days. Step one in improving health in such a community is food, not medicine. In fact, for this young man food was medicine.

The lesson here for those of us working on global health issues in Atlanta is that perhaps we have overlooked a key partner in this effort. Maybe Georgia farms and others involved in agriculture can be even more helpful with commodities and technical expertise.

Already, Georgians raise food that gets used in our country’s international food aid programs. Our peanuts are being used to create one of the more innovative efforts to fight malnutrition – a product called “plumpy’nut” – a peanut-based paste that has a two-year shelf-life and requires no water, preparation, or refrigeration. It is being used as a malnutrition treatment in famine situations globally.

The boy in the red shirt and others like him need the support of both the global health and agriculture communities here. We both have a part to play.


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