By David South
Doling out diet supplements to recipients of food aid may sound bizarre, but that’s what US diet giant Slim-Fast has been doing.
The company’s cans of powder have been distributed to the conflict-ridden former Soviet republic of Georgia and other parts of the collapsed Soviet Union by the aid agency Americares.
Critics say Slim-Fast is far from appropriate and is, at best, in bad taste. New York-based food-aid critic and writer Michael Maren says such contributions are simply the result of agencies being used as dumping grounds for tax write-offs.
As an example, he cites Somalia, where he recenly spent time researching an upcoming book critical of aid programs. Pharmaceutical firms, he charges, are dumping unnecessary drugs in that country.
“If you want to help people, give them what they need, not the crap we have around here. That a so-called aid agency would bring over Slim-Fast is absurd.
“The attitude that they should take any shit we give them – it’s arrogance,” says Maren, who believes many donors have a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude to people in need of help.
At Slim-Fast’s corporate headquarters in New York, Adena Pruzansky acknowledges that the donations are tax write-offs, but insists that their product is very nutritious. No one, she says, has complained about their contribution.
“If you look at our powdered products, there is a lot of nutrition in there. Certainly for people who don’t have food, this is something that could be useful to them.”
A spokesperson for Connecticut-based Americares, which directs surpluses donated by 1,100 firms to relief operations in 80 countries, praises Slim-Fast.
“They are a fine group of humanitarians,” says Elizabeth Close.
“Americares was just written up in Money magazine as the most cost-effective nonprofit agency,” she says of the organization, whose donations consist of overstocked, discontinued or obsolete items.
“We only accept a product for donation when we know we have a home for it. So we are not giving something inappropriate,” she says.
Close provides no details, however, about Slim-Fast’s participation. “Without their permission, I’m not really supposed to go into any further description of what they donated,” she says.
But those who see the devastating effects of eating disorders on women say Americares exercises poor judgement when it accepts such diet supplements.
“I think it’s quite bizarre,” says Merryl Bear of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. “Many of these diet plans are starvation diets. In many of the diets, the caloric intake is less than or equivalent to what the Nazi concentration camps delivered.”
Slim-Fast’s chocolate drink powder, for instance, is made of skim milk powder, sugar, whey powder, cocoa, fibre, calcium caseinate, corn oil, fructose, lecithin, salt and carrageenan. It relies on mixing with milk to gets its nutrition.
Lynne Martin of the Toronto Hospital’s eating disorder clinic says Americares is encouraging dieting among starving people who need calories first.
“Women need a minimum of 1,800 to 2,100 calories per day – to meet that requirement with Slim-Fast, you would need eight glasses per day,” she says.
Martin says the low calories available in the supplement become even lower if recipients don’t have access to milk and try to mix it with water.
“The protein level isn’t given without the milk, so you don’t know how much is in the powder, but certainly the calories would change if one were to mix it with water.”
At food relief agency CARE in Ottawa, program officer Ivan Connoir says what “the hungry need isn’t Slim-Fast but what is called a human daily ration (HDR).
“It is prepared in the United States especially for emergencies. It has no pork, so it can go to any country,” he says. “It is a kind of lentil stew and vegetable soup – just add water and it’s ready to eat. You even find bread in it. It can last for years.
“Of course the best thing is family food parcels that last one month.”
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