In the spring of 2008, food riots erupted in Haiti as skyrocketing grain prices made it almost impossible for average citizens of Haiti to afford the imported rice and wheat the impoverished island nation depends upon.
Over the summer, Haiti was pummeled by two consecutive hurricanes, Hanna and Ike, which destroyed homes, warehouses and workplaces, and flooded crops.
And now, with the global economic crisis stifling trade, challenging many governments' ability to provide for their own citizens, and negatively impacting charitable donation, children in Haiti are dying of malnutition.
One American woman who is working to save Haiti's malnourished children is Dr. Patricia Wolff, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, and the executive director of Meds & Food for Kids, a non-profit organization that provides supplemental nutrition for children in Haiti through a life-saving nutritionally enhanced peanut butter product known in Haiti as Medika Mamba.
Dr. Wolff, who is in Haiti right now feeding starving children, was kind enough to take time out of her very busy schedule to discuss with me the situation in Haiti, and some of the challenges currently facing her organization.
JAELITHE: How many children would you estimate your program has helped so far?
DR. PATRICIA WOLFF: Very close to 5000 children, most of those in the last two years as we have increased our production capacity in Cap Haitien, Haiti. We have a World Bank grant to partner with the public health sector in the north of Haiti and transfer our know-how to the medical professionals at the big public hospital in Cap Haitien and two rural clinics.
JAELITHE: What would you consider to be the top three problems behind the food crisis in Haiti?
DR. WOLFF: Not enough arable land for the population, erosion, and a poorly functioning government with an uneducated population.
JAELITHE: Do you think that the risk of similar food crises occurring in other countries around the world is growing? If so, why?
DR. WOLFF: A few years ago big organizations like the IMF and World Bank decided that it would be most efficient if industrialized countries grew the food and exported it to poor countries. Then, the industrialized countries found uses for their food besides eating it— e.g. making ethanol from it, etc.
This caused the price of food to go up all lover the world. Meanwhile, the poor countries did not improve their ability to make money to pay for imported food, and the many subsistence farmers in these countries did not receive the support they needed to improve their yields, get their crops to market and develop markets.
I think the big world actors have just recently seen the error of their ways and have returned to beginning to support subsistence farmers in various ways. We, for instance, just received two grants to help our farmers raise good quality peanuts and then sell them to Meds & Food for Kids. Without our educational and equipment support of the farmers we are unable to find enough Haitian peanuts to use in our Medika Mamba.
JAELITHE: How has the destruction from Hurricanes Ike and Hanna affected your work in Haiti this year?
DR. WOLFF: Many of the crops were destroyed and there are more malnourished children than ever.
We supply our own electricity with a generator, and there were several weeks with no gas available, so we needed to make several trips to the Dominican Republic for small amounts of gas to keep going.
We had difficulty transporting Medika Mamba around the country— it took three times as long and cost twice as much.
One of our workers had her house “melt” in the rain— no cement in the cement . . .
We had to pick up workers and deliver them to the factory because the streets had water up to one’s knees. Nevertheless, we did not miss one day of production and we are very proud of our workers for that. Banks, stores, clinics were all closed but Meds & Food for Kids was open and working.
JAELITHE: Could you tell us the basic recipe for Medika Mamba? What key nutrients are most crucial for helping starving children recover and grow?
The miracle of Medika Mamba is the combination of traditional milk, sugar, oil, vitamins, and minerals with peanuts. The antioxidants to the peanuts are very helpful to the recovery, the caloric density provided by the high fat content is very helpful to recovery, and the fact that there is no water, no cooking and no refrigeration needed makes this outpatient treatment for malnutrition very cost-effective for health providers, as well as for families, who can treat their children at home while continuing to take care of their other children and continuing whatever economic activity they pursue— farming, selling shampoos, giving haircuts, etc.
JAELITHE: You try to include as many locally-grown ingredients as possible in Medika Mamba. How have local farmers responded to your program?
DR. WOLFF: The local farmers know that all they know is from their fathers and grandfathers. They also know that their yields and quality are low. They did not know about aflatoxin mold contamination of their peanuts and the fact that it is an immune and growth suppressor in children and a cause of cancer in adults— until we told them and the government of Haiti, who had never heard of it.
Meds & Food for Kids' manager, Dumel Louis, is an agronomist. We are the first and main aflatoxin abaters in Haiti. We have solicited the help of the University of Georgia, Oklahoma State and Cornell University to help us to educate farmers, get them better seeds, biopesticides, etc.
This weekend these faculty are here in Haiti with me and they will have met with eight different groups of 35-60 farmers in 4 days. They get a generator, show their Power Point of insects and plant diseases, and talk about irrigation, harvest techniques, drying techniques and safe storage. Then they walk through the fields making very specific suggestions.They can almost never get out on time for the next scheduled stop, because the interest from these farmers is so high. We also have experimental test plots where the improved techniques are used and tested in Haitian conditions.
JAELITHE: As little as thirty years ago, Haiti was basically self-sufficient from an agricultural standpoint, producing large crops of rice and sugar cane with enough excess to export. But after new trade agreements with the United States brought cheap imported rice to Haitian markets, many Haitian farmers quit working on their farms, which were no longer profitable, and moved to the cities. Now Haiti is quite dependent on imported food, but the price of imported food has increased so much that many Haitians can no longer afford it. Can Haiti rebuild its agricultural system? What do you think would most help Haitians return to self-sufficiency?
DR. WOLFF: The other difference is that Haiti was ruled by a dictator at that time of relative prosperity. Since the US decided it should be a democracy, with more than half of the population illiterate and susceptible to demagoguery, Haiti has been in turmoil. Even when it is not violent, it is disorganized, without functioning governmental services and very poor roads, no electricity to speak of outside the capital of Port au Prince, and no running water or sewers. Public education is “free,” but the “fees” are too costly for most people, and there is no teacher certification required, so anyone can open a school, say they are a teacher, charge money and write whatever the kids need to memorize on the chalkboard because books, paper and pencils are too costly.
JAELITHE: How does the unstable political system in Haiti affect your ability to bring food aid to families in need?
DR. WOLFF: I would say that instability is not that great, but inadequacy is a much bigger problem. Customs is out of control and every customs inspector runs his own little thiefdom, for example. There are no food safety standards in the country. The medical care is abysmal. No garbage pick up. Every service that you can think of that is ordinarily provided by government does not exist here.
JAELITHE: What would you need most to expand your program? Equipment? Personnel?
DR. WOLFF: We need a new factory. We currently work out of a house because it was the only building we could find with water and space and no flooding and no rats. But in order to be sustainable, we need to double our capacity to produce Medika Mamba, and we cannot do this in our current facility.
According to the World Bank, the cost of living here in Haiti is 150% of what it is in Washington, DC. The items that an organization like Meds & Food for Kids needs to function here in Haiti are all imported at great cost. We also provide our own infrastructure at great cost— electricity, water, sewer, garbage disposal, laboratory facilities, adequate lighting and ventilation. We will need $500,000 to buy land and build this factory in the next 16 months in order to provide for the needs of Haiti’s malnourished children.
Our lease on our current inadequate building is up April 1, 2010. The landlord refuses to renew it. We can buy the house, or we can leave. The house does not meet our needs, so we need to move on to something that does meet our needs and there is nothing already built in this area which is suitable. We also insist that there actually be cement in our cement so we will have to oversee any building very closely to be sure that we prevent building collapse, which is an everyday occurrence here, but not covered by the news except occasionally.
JAELITHE: What can concerned Americans do to help alleviate the food crisis in Haiti?
DR. WOLFF: In my opinion, emergency food relief is necessary but not sufficient. We need to actually develop Haiti not just throw emergency rations into the crowd. Haiti needs investment in its subsistence farmers, more education of the kind that many small mission groups support, professional relationships between US medical facilities and Haitian public health facilities, and jobs!!
We can’t buy commodities overseas and transport them to Haiti, so only the customs people get rich. We need to make things here— clothes, baseballs, Medika Mamba, etc., and employ people to work in these factories and use their money to buy food for their families. Most of the jobs now are in government (the government pretends to pay them, and the workers pretend to work) or the non-profit sector, which tends to distort the pay schedule and is not a lifetime job.
Photo credit: Mark Edwards, BBC World Service.
Jaelithe also writes at The State of Discontent.