Food That More Than Fills the Belly

Food That More Than Fills the Belly

By Melinda Swenson

MamaCarts is a nonprofit food cart micro-franchise that will bring complete, clean, delicious meals to lower income urban markets.

A woman in the city of Parakou, Benin, West Africa, wakes to the thin light of early morning coming through the window.

For a few moments she listens to the sound of her children’s soft breathing and then gets up from her sleeping mat.

In the dirt courtyard in front of the cinder block building where her family lives, she nurses coals in a charcoal stove. This takes time. When the fire is hot, she puts a corn flour porridge on to simmer.

In French, she calls her family to breakfast, “Venez! Petit déjeuner!”

After she feeds her children and sees them off to school, she hoists her baby to her back and begins preparations for lunch. Today, like most days, she will spend most of her waking hours cooking meals.

In Benin, there are no convenience foods or ingredients. Think “Hamburger Helper or instant oatmeal.” Fresh vegetables are expensive, available only seasonally, and often rot before consumption because of the lack of good storage systems. There’s little money to buy meat or other sources of protein. Even if she could afford meat for her family, there’s no refrigeration to keep it safe.

Our Beninese mother has the same problem that many people living in developing countries have – her household is “food insecure.”

She often doesn’t know where her next supply of food is coming from. Food is typically unsanitary and composed of starchy staples, the food that people across the African continent call “food that fills the belly but creates a hidden hunger.”

The problems: 1) little infrastructure to support the timely transport and safe storage of fresh produce and meat; and 2) a lack of education about nutrition and safe food handling.

Four young alumnae from Colorado State University have come up with an ingenious solution – a nonprofit food cart micro-franchise that will use existing supply chains to distribute complete, clean, and delicious meals to lower income urban markets.

In 2013, Meghan Coleman, Rachael Miller, Lindsay Saperstone, and Jeannie Whitler were fresh out of CSU’s Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program in the College of Business when they decided to enter their proposal for addressing world hunger in urban settings to the Hult Prize, a business plan competition for budding social entrepreneurs. The Hult Prize is benefited by a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative which offers $1 million in seed money. After nearly making it into the final round of the competition, the GSSE grads were bolstered to move forward with their idea.

They entered the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Challenge. The task – to find solutions that would improve livelihoods for poor or vulnerable workers in the world’s informal economies. The CSU graduates were awarded a $105,000 grant.

Because women are a more marginalized community than men, especially in West Africa, and because there’s evidence that a woman’s income trickles down and results in better living standards for her entire family, the GSSE decided to recruit women to own and operate the carts. They call their enterprise MamaCarts.

A MamaCarts pilot is underway in Parakou. Miller, who worked in the Peace Corps in Benin from 2006 to 2008, will oversee the pilot as executive director of MamaCarts.

“I’ll organize our community cooking center, do the research on the carts and meal development, hire a nutritionist, and implement quality control measures,” Miller said. “I’ll work to see that the villages and gardening projects we’ve identified will bring their product to us.

“We don’t know yet what a MamaCart will look like,” said Miller.

“It might be a roll-out cart or one you tow behind a motorcycle, or it might be a woman with a really well-organized ‘meal cart’ in a bucket on her head. What’s important is that we offer what’s locally appropriate. It’d be absurd to go over there and start selling cheeseburgers! Whatever we serve, it’ll be important to keep it piping hot, since every meal over there is hot.”

Miller said that by the end of 2014, the co-founders of MamaCarts hope to have five carts up and running.

“We care about the well-being of our MamaCart owners and our customers,” Miller said.

“That has to shine through. That’s what will differentiate us. And if our cart owners have more income, they can comfortably send their kids to school, pay for a doctor’s visit, buy some extra meat for dinner, and even have a little extra pocket money. Everybody deserves to have those things.”

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