Shortness of breath, weakness and chest pains plagued Rajvi Mehta ’13 during her sophomore year. After being diagnosed with a genetic disposition to anemia, or thallasimia minor, she decided to research the condition.
Her family history of anemia and its associated conditions drove Mehta to further investigate the issue back home in India, and she learned that about 80 percent of fetal mortalities are caused by anemia, she said. She applied to and was accepted for a Swearer Center scholarship and in the summer of 2011 she founded Let’s Be Well Red, an initiative to combat and spread awareness about anemia in India.
Raising the bar
Mehta began conducting anemia tests for over 1,500 women in the slums of Mumbai under the guidance of the Family Planning Association of India and the Nargis Dutt Charitable Trust during the summer of 2011. She discovered the women’s iron deficiency could be easily mitigated by changing their eating habits.
“Although these women were really receptive to changing their diet, they were looking for a simple solution to their problem,” Mehta said. She decided a nutritional bar with the recommended amount of iron was the most practical solution. Mehta looked to the popular Indian delicacy “chikki” as a model for the nutritional bar but substituted some of its unhealthy ingredients — rice puffs and peanuts — with healthier options that included the recommended amount of iron. The result was the nutritional bar “GudNeSs.”
Each capitalized letter stands for a separate ingredient in the bar, Mehta wrote in an email to The Herald. “Gud” stands for the Hindi word for jaggery, or sugarcane extract. The “N” stands for nuts and nachani, an Indian grain, and the “S” stands for the seeds in the bar, including sesame seeds and flax seeds.
Mehta’s initial goal was to “fill in the gaps with Mumbai’s government programs on combating anemia,” where she found there was a lack of awareness, she said. The government had previously distributed iron pills to combat the blood deficiency but never explained why the pills were necessary or what anemia was, Mehta added.
A bar without par
Mehta wrote a post for the Behind the Science Newsletter of the Division of Biology and Medicine in September 2011, which helped attract attention to the organization. When Carlota Pereda ’15 read the post in an email from her adviser, she felt an instant connection to the project, she said.
“I had anemia for about a year and a half in high school, and it was really bad,” Pereda said. “I couldn’t go to class. I had absolutely no energy.”
Pereda got in touch with Mehta and they began working together, she said.
Mehta and Pereda faced some challenges getting the project off the ground, such as figuring out how a small initiative could penetrate the market in India.
Pereda received funding from the Swearer Center to travel to Mumbai in the summer of 2012 to find a solution. During her trip, she launched the Health Scouts, a program through which she trains high school students to learn and teach about anemia, spread awareness about the cause and introduce the bar into the Mumbai market. The students are currently coming up with creative ways to advertise the bar, which is outsourced by the Indian food company MTD Foods Private Limited.
Currently, 96 students from various Mumbai high schools participate in the Health Scouts. They now help sell bars at a slightly higher price to schools that are financially better off, using the money generated to subsidize bars for needier schools.
“We charge people just the amount of money that is needed to create the bar,” Pereda said.
Spreading the GudNeSs
To continue educating people about anemia at Brown and expanding the initiative in India, Let’s Be Well Red has welcomed new members.
Mehta and Pereda held an information session at the beginning of the year and selected seven volunteers through an application and interview process, they both said. The members are now helping to spread awareness about anemia by selling a nutritional bar similar to “GudNeSs” called “Felicious.” The alternate bar has slightly different ingredients, such as vanilla and white chocolate. Mehta and Pereda wanted a name that appealed to students here, they said. An ad for the new bar features the similarly named music video “Fergalicious,” by Fergie.
“I really love it,” said volunteer Nimita Uberoi ’15. “I feel like through our work at Brown we have already started making a difference.”
Let’s Be Well Red has collaborated with the South Asian Students Association and the Brown International Association by selling bars at their events, Mehta said.
The organization hopes to continue collaborating with larger groups at Brown, Pereda said.
“The impact will be huge,” she said. “If every person buys the equivalent of one bar, four people can have a bar back in India.”
Let’s Be Well Red also aims to work with Brown Dining Services, Mehta said, adding that she hopes to sell the Felicious bars at eateries such as Little Jo’s and the Blue Room.
“Dining Services has been talking to a group of students who asked us to introduce this product in the Campus Eateries,” Director of Retail Dining Jaques Larue wrote in an email to The Herald. “However, at this point, Dining Services has not entered in any kind of business partnership.”
“I definitely think (the bars) would be successful at Brown because it is a healthy option,” Uberoi said. “It will be especially popular with the vegan and vegetarian crowd.”
Let’s Be Well Red is also raising funds to keep up with rising demands in Mumbai, whose high schools are now ordering up to 30,000 bars a month, Mehta said. The ideal solution would be to raise enough money to afford the machinery to produce the bars themselves, she added.
Mehta said she hopes the Mumbai government will help fund the initiative.
“If we are able to get the Indian government on board (in Mumbai) we can produce up to 300,000 bars a day,” Mehta said. The government’s support would allow the needed amount of bars to be distributed to students on a daily basis, she added.
Next summer, some of the volunteers will travel to India to train the Health Scouts, and the group plans to expand to other cities near Mumbai, Mehta said.