Why edible worms could help solve global health issues

Beginning in Guatemala, alumni-led startup spreads sustainable model across world

Three University of Chicago students were preparing to graduate in 2016 when they had a unique vision for how to combat global health issues: using edible insects as a sustainable food source.

That spring Elizabeth Frank, Joyce Lu and Gabby Wimer co-founded Mealflour, a social venture established through the Polsky Center’s College New Venture Challenge, which aimed to provide nutrition in underdeveloped communities.

Working with indigenous communities in Guatemala, Mealflour taught them how to build mealworm farms in order to produce protein-rich flour—with the goal of creating a sustainable nutrition solution that can be completely operated and managed by local communities after initial deployment.

“We are trying to bridge the gap between the theoretical concept that edible insects are the future of food and these large organizations that lack the experience to make this concept a reality,” Frank said.

After years of hard work, the UChicago alumni have decided to hand over the leadership of their enterprise to the local community in Guatemala and to promote Mealflour’s successful nutrition model to other organizations around the world.

“The goal driving Mealflour has not been simply to launch Mealflour, but rather to prove that the model of training people to grow edible insects to make this protein powder can work,” Frank said.

Polsky supports pioneering idea

With backgrounds in global health, nutrition and education, the three founders started planning for this enterprise as a thought experiment on how to create a sustainable nutrition program that also acknowledges the impact of low income and environmental issues. The three stumbled upon a 2013 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on edible insects, detailing the benefits of these protein rich insects to the environment and human diets. However, despite the fact that this report referenced edible insects as “the future of food,” they could not find many people who were interested in making the edible insect farming model a reality.

“We talked to the World Health Organization and other international food programs, but they all had the concern that this type of model had not been proven yet,” Frank said. However, seeing the potential to build a sustainable nutrition model, Frank and her co-founders decided to be the trailblazers of this new nutrition concept.

After its launch, it raised $20,000 in seed funding from the Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge, Clinton Global Initiative University Resolution Project Fellowship, and the Polsky Center’s College New Venture Challenge.

In addition to funding support, the Polsky Center also provided advice and guidance for Frank and her founding team as the three were deciding how to incorporate their organization. As Frank recalled, “the Polsky Center helped us figure out how we wanted to incorporate initially. We ended up becoming a University-sponsored program, which made the most sense to us. Polsky helped us get the information we needed to make that decision.”

Currently, Mealflour counts more than 340 local members as its direct beneficiaries—people who have attended mealworm farming workshops or participated in their training program. They have also built more than 50 mealworm farms and hired seven interns from UChicago to help with the daily operations of Mealflour in Guatemala.

Moving forward, the three founders want to make sure that more community members are trained to farm mealworms so that the community can be truly self-sustaining even after they leave. They also are looking into connecting with NGOs in other countries for collaboration on establishing new edible insect farms.

The initial thought experiment bred here at the University of Chicago is helping more people around the world combat hunger and lead a healthier life.

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Polsky Center website.