Mealworms. (Photo illustration by Joy Olivia Miller; source photography by OakleyOriginals, CC BY 2.0)

The diet of worms

Gabby Wimer, Elizabeth Frank, and Joyce Lu, all AB’16, are building MealFlour, a social enterprise centered on mealworms, from the ground up.

“So have you all tried mealworm flour?”

Gabby Wimer, AB’16, smiles, as if the answer is obvious. Elizabeth Frank, AB’16, and Joyce Lu, AB’16, nod in agreement.

Frank’s face lights up. “We’ve had a lot. It’s slightly nutty flavored.”

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3565","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"257","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Founders Joyce Lu, Gabby Wimer, and Elizabeth Frank. (Photo courtesy MealFlour)

While the idea of eating insects may seem repulsive, this trio has embraced mealworms wholeheartedly—not only in their own diets, but also in their new social enterprise, MealFlour.

Wimer, Frank, and Lu are in their third month of building MealFlour from the ground up. In May, while preparing for final exams and graduation, the women behind MealFlour began executing a yearlong plan to grow their business.

Their goal is to use a microfranchise model, in which local families pay a fee or receive a loan to learn how to build space-efficient mealworm farms from recycled materials. The mealworms can then be dried and ground into a flour rich with protein and amino acids, providing nutritional benefits and creating jobs in the process. Beginning in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the trio hopes to improve health and economic opportunity in communities affected by malnutrition.

They chose Guatemala because it has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America and the fourth-highest in the world. “Indigenous populations are especially affected where we’re going to be working,” Lu explains. “About 70 percent of kids under the age of 5 are already malnourished.”

But the original inspiration for MealFlour’s pilot site grew out of a personal experience. In the summer of 2015, Lu researched and taught nutrition and reproductive health in Quetzaltenango. While working at Primeros Pasos, a local clinic, she took part in a nutritional supplement initiative to use different types of protein-enriched flours for baked goods. However, most of the flours they tried had to be shipped from far away and were financially prohibitive. “That’s where we got the idea to do something that was locally grown, within the communities. Mealworms were ideal for that,” she says.

Mealworms, or Tenebrious molitor, aren’t commonly grown in Quetzaltenango, but mealworm farms are inexpensive, small, and adaptable to any environment. They are vertical structures one square foot around, in which two to six tiered compartments separate the insects at different stages of the life cycle (mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle). From a diet of organic food waste, the worms grow to be about one inch long and 55.4 percent protein—more than twice as protein efficient as beef.

About a month after construction, a compartment’s worth of mealworms can be roasted and ground to produce one pound of flour per week, which can easily be incorporated into local dishes. The MealFlour team has already perfected a cookie recipe, and Wimer is currently experimenting with tortillas and oatmeal. They’ve also found some assistance on the ground: a local bakery is going to concoct new mealworm dishes and offer product tastings.

Cookies made with MealFlour. (Photo courtesy MealFlour)

Long known to pet owners as reptile, bird, and fish food, mealworms are just beginning to wriggle their way into Western health food markets. Many societies are still largely averse to entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, but the MealFlour team isn’t concerned with what the UN has dubbed “the disgust factor.” That’s because, as Lu notes, the country is no stranger to entomophagy—flying ants are considered a delicacy.

When Lu returned to Chicago from Guatamala in the fall of 2015, she presented her research from Primeros Pasos at UChicago’s Center for Global Health. There she began to collaborate with Wimer and Frank, who had also spent their summers in international development: Wimer worked to improve sexual and reproductive health education in Rwanda, and Frank performed clinical research on household air pollution in Nigeria.

Their combined experience in global health, along with an innovative approach to malnutrition, made MealFlour immediately enticing to investors. As they entered competitions over the next few months, they succeeded in raising $20,000 in seed funding: MealFlour won the Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge, College New Venture Challenge, and Clinton Global Initiative University Resolution Project Fellowship.

With this momentum, the newly minted graduates decided that now was the best time to put their ideas into action. “We really think that this idea has a lot of potential,” Wimer explains, “So with the money that we have we knew that we could at least fund a full year of working on the ground.”

(Infographic courtesy MealFlour)

They’ve already partnered with NGOs and community leaders, communicated with the Guatemalan government, and identified families who are willing to work with them. Implementation of the pilot in Quetzaltenango should be complete by April 2017.

Although some economists have criticized the efficacy of microfinance in reducing poverty, the women believe they can succeed by tailoring MealFlour to the community. In their research, the trio has found that microloans tend to fail when there isn’t good communication with loan recipients. Wimer explains that their biggest goal is “really talking to the community and making sure that [the business] is structured in a way that makes sense for them.”

There are tentative plans to expand to Kenya next year, but for now the women behind MealFlour are focusing on the task at hand. Acknowledging that she can sometimes get ahead of herself, Wimer admits, “I have big dreams for this, … but there’s a lot that we’re not going to know until we are implementing on the ground.”