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Relief Organizations Help Haitians Fight Hunger

May 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the second of two reports about the role of relief organizations in rebuilding Haiti, Dave Iverson of KQED San Francisco explores two Haitian-led aid groups that are helping to feed the hungry after the devastating earthquake.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: Haiti four months later, still coming to grips with the aftermath of the earthquake.

Dave Iverson of KQED San Francisco has the second of two reports on the role of aid groups in the recovery — tonight’s focus, helping Haitians feed themselves.

DAVID IVERSON: Much of Haiti once looked like this, both beautiful and bountiful, a land capable of feeding an entire nation. But, today, much of Haiti looks like this: 97 percent deforested, the trees cut down for fuel, leaving a barren landscape and depleted farm soil.

Fewer people can make their living off the land. And a country that once fed itself now imports most of its food. The consequences stare at you. Twenty percent of Haiti’s children are malnourished. Despite the billions spent by foreign government and big non-governmental organizations, Haiti has more hungry children than any nation in the Western Hemisphere.

This is a story about two Haitian-led projects trying to change that statistic and about what can happen when internationally funded aid organizations follow the lead of the people they serve.

One project works in the field, the other in the kitchen. In a church rectory kitchen in Port-au-Prince, cooks are peeling and pounding, steaming and stirring. Today, just like every day, they will feed close to 2,000 children.

It’s a program that came into being through the unlikely partnership of a charismatic Haitian Catholic priest and a woman from Berkeley, California. In 1997, Margaret Trost was unexpectedly widowed at the age of 34. Her husband, Rich, died suddenly from an asthma attack, leaving Margaret and their young son behind.

More than a year later, friends persuaded Trost to join a volunteer mission to Haiti, where, one night, she met the Father Gerard Jean-Juste, who talked to the group about hunger in Haiti.

MARGARET TROST, What If? Foundation: And I will never forget it. He said: “I have a vision for a food program for the hungry children in my community. They come up to me every Sunday and they say, Father, I’m hungry.”

And he described to us how it broke his heart that he wasn’t able to feed them. And there was something that lit but inside me. And I thought, well, maybe I can help him with that. What if I could help him with that food program?

DAVID IVERSON: What if, indeed? When she got back home to Berkeley, Trost started the What If? Foundation, its sole purpose, to raise money to feed Haiti’s hungry children.

Ten years later, the program feeds 2,000 kids a day, 10,000 meals a week, year in and year out. Trost raises the money, but what makes this program stand out from many international relief programs is that all operations are totally run by a Haitian staff, which Trost says is key.

MARGARET TROST: I don’t know how to run a program in Haiti. I’m still learning Creole. I’m not Haitian. I don’t live here. I think it’s critical to be working alongside a Haitian community. They have designed the food program in a way that works.

DAVID IVERSON: In fact, just days after the quake, when food distribution was still snarled throughout Port-au-Prince, the What If? program was able to feed 5,000 people a day.

Lavarice Gaudin directs the program’s Haitian staff.

LAVARICE GAUDIN, What If? Foundation: You see how much that we are doing in 10 years. My hope for the organization is to make the difference, because the children are the future of the country.

DAVID IVERSON: And, so, in this one Port-au-Prince neighborhood, the face of hunger has begun to change. And, yet, inside the busy kitchen, there is also a clue TO the larger problem of hunger in Haiti, a bag of rice from America.

Haitian fruits and vegetables aren’t hard to find in the local markets, but Haitian rice is. Thanks to free-trade policies and American farm subsidies, American rice is cheaper than what is locally grown. Today, 80 percent of Haiti’s rice supply comes from companies like Riceland of Arkansas, beneficiaries of policies former President Clinton once championed, and now regrets.

BILL CLINTON, former president of the United States: It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people.

DAVID IVERSON: But feeding Haiti will take more than new trade policies. It will take reinvigorating rural Haiti itself.

One such effort is under way here in Haiti’s Central Plateau, where an estimated 40 percent of the children are malnourished.

STENIO LOUIS JEUNE, agronomist, Partners in Agriculture (through translator): It is a big issue in the Central Plateau, because a lot of children die. And the reason is, a lot of people are not working, and they can’t feed the children.

DAVID IVERSON: Stenio Louis Jeune is an agronomist with the Haitian NGO Zanmi Agrikol, Partners in Agriculture.

On this demonstration farm, he teaches local farmers the latest productivity techniques.

STENIO LOUIS JEUNE (through translator): Haiti has six months of rain and six months dry. So, there is a lot we could do with the land.

DAVID IVERSON: Including showing farmers how to plant fast-growing crops to help feed the thousands of people who fled here after the quake.

STENIO LOUIS JEUNE (through translator): Miracle.

MAN: In about, like, two weeks-and-a-half.

DAVID IVERSON: They’re also creating jobs by hiring local workers to turn locally grown crops into a food supplement to treat malnutrition. And, perhaps most critically, they’re reforesting the Haitian landscape by planting trees and developing alternative fuel products, in order to persuade farmers not to cut down trees.

MAN: This is an alternative charcoal made out of — through the cane.

DAVID IVERSON: No deforestation.

MAN: No deforestation.

DAVID IVERSON: Zanmi Agrikol focuses on boosting what can be locally grown and employing local people. It is a philosophy shared by the program’s parent organization, the global health project Partners in Health, which employs 5,000 people in its various health, nutrition and agriculture programs. All are Haitian, save a few advisers, like nutritionist Joan VanWassenhove.

JOAN VANWASSENHOVE, associate nutrition coordinator, Partners in Health: We firmly believe that this project is something that is serving the people of Haiti, and that it needs to be in — in Haitian hands to really operate the way that we — we believe it can and it should.

And, you know, I think that that is not something that every NGO is able to do or willing to do. But we believe that building capacity and giving people the tools that they need to succeed is the best way forward.

DAVID IVERSON: Over the years, Haiti’s sorrows have been magnified by government failure at home and ill-conceived policies from abroad. But, as more outside aid flows into Haiti, it may be that the best chance for sustainable progress and for sustenance itself will come from what is nurtured within.

MARGARET TROST: They are running the program. They are figuring out how to navigate through these tricky waters. And it has run it through a coup d’etat, through hurricanes, through economic embargoes, through rice prices shooting through the roof.

That is extraordinary to be in partnership with people like that. They have taught me that it’s always important to take a step.

DAVID IVERSON: There is a Haitian saying about taking steps, a saying that seems both unrealistic and indispensable. “Piti piti na rive,” the saying goes. “Little by little, we will arrive.”