Erin Stewart—Social AdVentures
“Helping to save a life is as easy as buying peanut butter,” claims Robbie Vitrano, CEO of Good Spread. Proceeds from sales of his Good Spread peanut butter—sold via the company website, Amazon, and stores such as Whole Foods—directly fund a fortified peanut-based paste used to treat children suffering in famine-stricken areas.
Around 20 million children face “severe acute malnutrition” —a condition characterized by extremely low body weight, a gaunt appearance, and sometimes swelling due to nutritional deficiencies. These children are so malnourished that, aside from physical stuntedness, they’re at risk of brain shrinkage, cognitive disabilities, and even death. Good Spread currently focuses on malnutrition in South Sudan and regions of northern Uganda, caused by ongoing political conflict, economic hardship, and famine. In South Sudan, according to Oxfam, "100,000 people are facing starvation now and a further 1 million people are classified as being on the brink of famine." Since 2013, a third of the South Sudanese population has been displaced, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to resource-strapped refugee camps in northern Uganda.
As overwhelming as this crisis might seem, in a Skype interview Vitrano points to the efficacy and potential in therapeutic foods for treating resultant malnutrition. The peanut paste, developed by Doctors Without Borders and produced by the nonprofit Mana, is shelf-stable, doesn’t require added water, and is delivered in a squeezable package. Primarily consisting of peanut butter, powdered milk, micronutrients, and sugar, the nutritionally dense paste is energy-rich, and contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals for a child’s healthy development. Giving kids this type of therapeutic food for a year reversed severe acute malnutrition in 96 percent of cases, according to a study cited by Mana.
Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition can expect to become well-nourished by eating three packets of the therapeutic peanut butter a day over a period of four to six weeks. They rarely relapse. Vitrano has observed first-hand the quick impact of the treatment is quick. “To see a child where [the paste] just works and they’re restored to normal health and not only that, they smile, and they act like kids, when before that they were completely lifeless in every respect, that’s significant,” he says.
And yet, the grants and government support Mana received were only able to fund a third of the therapeutic food needed worldwide. “While you have this cure, the problem is that you aren’t getting enough of it out to kids who need it,” says Vitrano. “And so millions of kids die, essentially unnecessarily,”
Good Spread was created in 2015 to add a source of revenue for Mana. For each jar of peanut butter a consumer buys, one packet of therapeutic peanut butter is delivered to a malnourished child. Good Spread products are made with organic, ethically sourced peanuts from Fitzgerald, Georgia, and utilize sustainable palm oil through a partnership with Natural Habitats. So far, the sales of Good Spread peanut butter have sent 150,000 peanut-paste treatments to aid 1,500 children. And the company’s current Indiegogo campaign, where users can pre-order new peanut butter flavors (Chocolate Pretzel, Honey Banana, and Unsweetened Probiotic), is aiming to fund an additional 100,000 treatments for South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda.
“The idea was: What if we could take peanut butter and use it in two ways?” says Vitrano. “One way to make this therapeutic product, and the other way to engage a U.S. market of over $2 billion and [a consumer product] that shows up in 92 percent of households.” Americans love peanut butter, and Vitrano wants them to see how this ubiquitous product can have an impact beyond its presence in the pantry. “This everyday, simple purchase actually can contribute to saving a life,” he says.
This month, Good Spread is launching the new flavors and labeling that includes codes allowing customers to receive alerts about when and where the Mana peanut paste tied to their purchase is delivered. Additionally, Good Spread will provide customers with updates about its regions of focus, and how the affected communities are managing ongoing problems like displacement and violence.
Helping customers to understand their impact is an integral part of Good Spread’s broader mission. It’s not just about getting them to buy a jar of peanut butter, it’s showing them that their choices matter. Putting ethically sourced, philanthropic peanut butter in your shopping cart is a first step. But spreading understanding of global problems such as famine, supply-chain practices, and what individuals can do to spark change is Good Spread’s larger goal.
“At its core, the company is a bit of an experiment in seeing how far we can push conscious consumption,” Vitrano tells me. “How much can we use an everyday product to nudge greater consciousness? … The way that we define success for us, ultimately, is going to be: Are people buying our product for the right reasons?”
Vitrano acknowledges that freighting a jar of peanut butter with all that meaning isn’t easy. “Getting that story in—on a label, in supermarkets, online—is a significant challenge,” he says. “But the way we think of this challenge is that we’ve got to get this right.” He laughs. “We’re assholes if we don’t.”