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A True Win-Win: How Being More Active Can Help Fight Malnutrition

The other day, I was sitting at my work desk feeling too sedentary, too isolated, and altogether too down about my restricted life during this coronavirus pandemic. Then, an email popped into my inbox from one of my favorite Heroku customers. Active for Good was announcing their latest activity challenge starting on May 1st. Every minute of exercise during the month of May counts towards unlocking lifesaving meals for malnourished kids. If there was ever a reason to get my sorry butt up out of my chair, this was it!

Food as prescribed medicine

To start with, Active for Good is easy to love. It’s a sister organization of MANA Nutrition, a nonprofit that manufactures ready-to-use therapeutic food for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Kids receiving MANA treatment range from six months to about six years and are located across Africa, as well as in parts of Southeast Asia, Central America, and even North Korea.

It goes without saying that most malnourished children in the developing world don’t have access to a hospital bed with a feeding tube. “MANA” stands for “Mother Administered Nutritive Aid,” and their meal packets are designed to allow a mother to feed her child at home in any environment. No refrigeration, cooking, or even water is needed — meals are based on a type of peanut butter that’s been supercharged with all the micronutrients needed to bring a child back from the brink of starvation.

Over the past 10+ years, this type of therapy has become the standard of care for the World Food Programme, UNICEF, USAID, and similar agencies. The results are impressive. After completing six weeks of MANA therapy, over 95% of children treated never return to their previous level of malnutrition.

Today, nearly 20 million children are in desperate need of treatment. So, how can one person make a difference? It turns out, anyone can help simply by being active.

Scaling empathy and connection

MANA was founded in 2009. Once operations were up and running smoothly, the MANA team wanted to extend their vision. How could they connect their cause to people in North America who had the opposite problem? Could they somehow help people in the developed world fight obesity and raise awareness of global malnutrition at the same time?

In 2014, Active for Good was born as a project to bridge these two worlds. Says co-founder Troy Hickerson: “Our goal is to help both sides of the health equation. We're getting fit, kids are getting fed, and everyone wins.”

For the team at Active for Good, their focus is not just about helping people stay fit or lose weight. Nor is it all about encouraging people to help end a humanitarian crisis. It’s about what lies underneath the two that creates the true bridge between them. “We’re interested in the impact of scaling empathy and connection,” says Hickerson, “and we wonder how different the world would be if we had more of it.” These powerful feelings can improve our own lives and communities in innumerable ways and lead to a sense of purpose.

When it comes to getting more exercise, purpose can be a powerful motivator. It can also shift the attention away from our own (sometimes shame-based) personal narratives. These days, I’m sure I’m not the only one telling myself I’m getting “pudgy” (to put it mildly).

Burn a calorie, contribute a calorie

Active for Good drives its mission primarily through time-based activity challenges. Each challenge lasts for a designated period of time, such as 30 days. Most are private events. Companies will sponsor a challenge for their employees as a team-building or employee engagement initiative. Other organizations, such as churches and nonprofits also run challenges to engage their community in global issues. There are even very short-term challenges that happen within an hour or two, such as during breaks at a conference.

Recently, Active for Good has started running free challenges that are open to the public. So, what do you need to do to join in?

Signup and setup are a snap — you download the Active for Good app, register with the event code, and connect your fitness tracker, such as the iPhone’s health app, Fitbit, or Garmin, to the app. That’s it. The rest is entirely up to you.

During the month, every minute you spend exercising earns points towards unlocking a MANA meal packet for a child. The app serves up microstories along the way to help you stay motivated, and there’s also a leaderboard for those who love to compete. Says marketing director Luke Mysse, “One of the things I love about the app is the tangible tie to the impact I’m making. The fact that I can see my activity actually unlock a meal and know that it will help a kid, that really keeps me going.”

Schools in particular have taken up the challenge — and run with it. Harnessing student energy and enthusiasm for the cause, many schools not only run challenges, but also use Active for Good as part of a student development program. Student leaders set up, promote, and manage the challenge. They’ll run offbeat activities like hula-hoop contests or musical chairs, and a few will even invite teachers to compete in front of the school assembly (with hilarious results). Programs also tie in with geography classes; students research and give presentations on the countries and communities impacted by their challenge. At one high school in Canada, seniors are sharing their Active for Good projects in their capstone presentation.

Kids helping kids — they don’t think about all the tradeoffs in their personal time management; they just jump in and act. There’s a lesson in there for us adults.

The latest challenge: Active Together While Apart

Fast forward to May 1st, which starts tomorrow! Active for Good’s latest challenge, “Active Together While Apart,” is free and open to the public. Anyone can join the challenge at any time during the month (every little bit counts); start by downloading the iPhone app or Android app.

If you miss this one, no worries. Keep an eye out as more public challenges will roll out in the coming months.

Wherever you are, and whatever your local situation may be during this global pandemic, you can still connect with friends, family, and others by being active together virtually or at a safe distance. At the same time, you can connect with a child and a community on the other side of the world through your impact. Personally, I look forward to seeing how much I can contribute.

We invite you, your family and friends, and anyone in the Heroku community, to join Team Heroku in this upcoming Active for Good challenge. See you on the leaderboard!

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