Tel Aviv high school students invent superfood to help malnourished African children
Israeli teens travel from Rwanda to Uganda to set up Spirulina labs.
Like most wild ideas, it all began during a lively discussion in a philosophy class. The location was the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, a high school in Tel Aviv that's more than a century old. The teacher was Dr. Ze'ev Degani who, as school principal, was playing double duty teaching philosophy.
The students were learning about the concept of personal responsibility when Degani challenged them to think about this idea outside of a classroom environment. The students turned to food. Specifically, to the lack of quality food around the world. They researched how children in developing nations are malnourished and often don't have access to food with basic nutritional value. This was more than just an intellectual exercise for Degani's students. They wanted to invent an actual, practical, tangible solution to one of the world's most vexing humanitarian problems.
And the students found their answer in the unlikeliest of places: algae.
There's a biomass of bacteria known as Spirulina, and it's one of the best things you can eat. It's often mass produced and added to animal food, and it's sold as a daily supplement for humans. But it can be expensive to produce. So the students in Tel Aviv devised a mechanism that was cost-efficient and easy to use. Using their system, the Spirulina could be whipped up in a small lab, crushed into a powder and sprinkled onto food. Just adding a spoon's worth to any food or drink will make it healthier.
Maya Savir is the director of the JustSpirulina program at Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. "Spirulina is the healthiest food nature has to offer," she told From The Grapevine. "There's nothing like it." It's packed with protein, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. For a malnourished child in Africa, it can turn something with empty calories into a superfood.
Now they had to put their plan into action. The students reached out to communities in need – in countries like Ethiopia and Kenya – and offered to travel there to help set up a Spirulina lab on site. What makes the program unique is that it employs a peer-to-peer model – the Israeli students fly to these countries and teach their African counterparts how to set up a Spirulina production lab. The African students, in turn, become Spirulina experts and then pass it on as well, teaching these new skills to others in their community. "We're trying to create a chain of solidarity and nutrition," Savir said.
"When you tell a young adult, you can give this knowledge to your peer, in essence, what you're saying is you have something to give. You are worth a lot. It's the most empowering message for young adults," explained Savir. "I've seen this again and again – with our students and with the students in every community we visit."
Since the program launched, the students have helped in the remotest of places. With the help of the Pole Pole Foundation, a nonprofit aid group, they set up a Spirulina site inside a pediatric hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo for severely malnourished children. The students have sent Spirulina bars to Syrian refugees. "We're very humbled," Savir said.
Two of the Israeli students who participated in the JustSpirulina program were so inspired that they decided to become doctors themselves. "All students that are interested in taking responsibility and doing something to make the world a better place take part," Savir told us. "These are truly terrific kids."
The program is not the only one in Israel to take advantage of the wonders of Spirulina. College students at the Technion Institute in Haifa invented something called an "Algafalafel," which is also infused with the nutritious microalgae.
As for Savir, she's looking to the future. "I hope there are more schools that would like to take on this challenge and start their own change. I think it's an amazing opportunity for young people to do what they can. They're much smarter than us. They're more energetic. They can make a difference."
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