IZMIR/MANILA -- High energy biscuits, or HEBs as they’re known in the trade, are ideal for the sort of relief operations that follow natural disasters because they’re easy to transport and they don’t require cooking. In addition, they are loaded with minerals, vitamins and energy so they can keep people going for several days if there's no other food available.
In the Philippines the biscuits have also been useful as a way of making sure mothers and children don't lose out on important nutrients as they deal with the floods and devastation left behind by a series of typhoons.
Having decided to see exactly where these biscuits came from and how they reached the people who needed them, one day in late October I headed for the factory in Turkey where most of the HEBs for the Philippines have been produced.
Made for emergencies
The factory, in the city of Izmir, is run by Lezzet Gida, a food company specialising in sweet biscuits, chocolate-covered wafers and Turkish Delight.
"There’s no great difference between making HEBs and any other sort of biscuit,” Hasan Saruhanli, vice president of Lezzet, told me as we watched the last biscuits from WFP's order being packed into boxes. “The ingredients change, of course: a bit less sugar, a bit more soya and then all those minerals and vitamins. But it's the same process."
Getting 100 metric tons of biscuits from Turkey to the Philippines would normally be a complicated and costly task. But for this consignment, WFP’s corporate partner TNT had agreed to fly the HEBs to Manila free of charge. So I followed the red Lezzet trucks to Izmir airport and, after seeing the biscuits loaded safely onto the Boeing 747-400, I jumped in with them.
Fuel for 11 hours
With the biscuits in the hold and enough fuel in the tanks for 11-hours flying, the plane now weighed 412 tons. To me that seemed like an awful lot for something that was supposed to fly. But pilot Jean Paul Pirson informed me that everything was “quite in order.”
This was the second largest cargo plane in the world, he explained, a “beautiful” piece of engineering which could practically fly itself to Manila. In fact, we zipped uneventfully across most of Asia and, at 3 am local time, we landed in the Philippines. Read more on WFP's logistics blog
The WFP emergency team in Manila had already decided where the first batch of biscuits should go. They were bound for Talim, an island in the huge inland lake that lies southeast of Manila. It had been badly flooded after the typhoons and many fishermen and farmers had lost their livelihoods.
Expanses of flood water
So the next day I helped load a ton of HEBs onto the WFP chopper and we flew for about 40 minutes, passing over wide expanses of misty grey flood water. We landed on a windy hill-top and offloaded the biscuits, which were taken away to be distributed to mothers and children.
It was during the distribution that I spotted Antonio, the 6-year-old boy you see in the photo above. He was sitting in his brother’s arms, gnawing on a biscuit and looking rather pleased with himself. As I took his picture, I reflected on the astounding fact that five days earlier the biscuit in his hand had been a lump of dough on a factory conveyor belt 9,374 kilometres away.
Seeing the camera, Antonio grinned at me. I grinned back. Journey over.