Women, Children Resort to Eating Dirt Cookies in Haiti: The Global Food Crisis

This post is part of Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

If you live in the United States or North America and are reading this blog, chances are you’ve never known what real hunger feels like. Sure most of us have uttered things like, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” “I’m starving!,” or “There’s nothing to eat” while staring into a refrigerator or cabinet full of food (I know I’m guilty of all three), but the reality is that the majority of us always know where our next meal is coming from and we don’t truly want for much.

We may also complain about the rising food costs (again, I am guilty) and perhaps have had to scale back on the groceries we buy or forgo other luxuries, but we are still able to provide nutritious meals for ourselves and our families. We are very fortunate.

HaitiElsewhere in the world in developing nations, people are not so fortunate. The rising cost of food is taking it’s toll on the poorest of poor. In countries like Haiti, people are resorting to literally eating dirt in order to fill their bellies and stay alive. “Cookies” made from dirt, salt, and vegetable shortening have become regular meals for many Haitian men, women and children.

The price of food continues to rise and even the dirt to make the cookies, which comes from the country’s central plateau, has gone up in cost.

At the market in the La Saline slum, a two-cup portion of rice now sells for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk, and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.

Still, at about 5 cents apiece, the cookies are a bargain compared with food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day.

I thought long and hard about what topic to cover for Bloggers Unite for Human Rights. Given that I’ve already written extensively in the past about maternal health both because of my personal interest and CE position with BlogHer, I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and tackle something I didn’t have much knowledge about. While there are so many human rights crises going on in the world right now – the Myanmar cyclone and China earthquake just to name a couple of the most recent – I decided on something slightly less in the spotlight, though no less significant, in hopes of educating myself as well as others.

Emerson - age 1Clara (age 3)A friend of mine named Heather is personally invested in the situation in Haiti as she and her husband (along with their two biological children) have been trying to adopt two children – Clara (age 3) and Emerson (age 1) – from an orphanage there since March 2007. I took the opportunity today to ask Heather some questions about their adoption experience thus far and find out more about how the food crisis is affecting the lives of the children in the Haitian orphanage. She was kind enough to share personal information and provide me with some pictures of her children.

Amy: Have the living/food conditions changed between your first visit to the country (and/or orphanage) and your most recent visit? If so, how? And when, roughly, were those visits?

Heather: Our last visit was in January 2008. The visit planned for April 2008 was canceled due to the rioting in Port au Prince over the rising costs of food. We have also visited in July and October 2007 and plan to go again in July 2008.

We aren’t able to see much of the country during our visits as our orphanage only allows us to visit on escorted trips and we are not allowed to leave the hotel while in the country. From what we see driving from the airport to the hotel, Port au Prince seems cleaner and there are more functioning traffic lights. There are still canals filled with garbage and wild pigs eating that garbage. There is still the stench of burning garbage.

The conditions in the orphanage appear about the same since our first trip in April 2007 with the exception of there being 50-75 more children in the 3000 square foot house where they live. We believe there are now approximately 150 children living in what is a mansion by Haitian standards. There is no yard – the house is surrounded by concrete which extends about 10-20 feet from the walls of the house. The property is surrounded by a 15-20 foot tall cinder block wall topped with broken bottles. Laundry is done by hand and hung anywhere possible to dry.

The infants are all kept on the main floor of the house – probably in what used to be the living and dining rooms. Children who are walking up to about age five live upstairs. They sleep in double- or triple-decker cribs with at least two children in each. The orphanage’s directors and their children also live upstairs. There is one bathroom. Older children generally live in one of the other two buildings the orphanage leases in the suburbs of Port au Prince.

Amy: How is the current food crisis affecting the orphanage?

Heather: Parents are given very little information about the daily life of their children, however, we know that they usually eat two meals per day and one snack. This food is usually rice and beans – little to no protein, dairy, or fresh fruits and vegetables. Their water is rationed as they do not have a safe source of water other then bottled water which is expensive. Infants are weaned off formula well before they would be in the US as the costs of formula are astronomical compared to rice and beans.

Parents are attempting to collect 36,000 pounds of food to be sent by container ship to the orphanage in July.

Amy: Have your visits to Haiti changed the way you look at food and food waste in our country of plenty?

Heather: Every interaction I have with other people, every show I watch on TV, every news report I hear or read, every purchase I make reminds me of the overabundance we have in our country and how just a small fraction of what we have would provide Haitians with “luxuries” they’ve never experienced – daily protein, fresh fruit and vegetables, proper medical care, shoes, and so on. Listening to people complain about the hardships in the US makes it ever so clear that we have absolutely no idea what true need is.

Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your children, the orphanage or your experiences visiting Haiti in general?

Heather: This is the most painful process I’ve even participated in – politics taking precedence over children’s lives, the different value placed on children in a country where it is common for children to die, the lack of urgency, difficult communications, arbitrary laws enforced (or not) at someone’s whim. Every day we live with the reality that our children might die before they come home. Clara, at age 39 months, weighs 18 pounds. She has not gained any weight in 15 months. She has TB. This is in the orphanage where her biological mother brought her to receive better care than she could provide at home. International adoption is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I will survive it with my sanity intact.

Heather’s children are at Foyer de Sion orphanage. She doesn’t expect Clara and Emerson to get to come home to the United States until 2009. If you’d like to make a donation (PayPal accepted) to the orphanage, please visit Sion Fonds.

What can we do here at home to help with the food crisis?

Aside from making donations to charitable donations, there are other things we can do in our own part of the world that can have an impact on the global food crisis.

– I wrote a couple weeks ago about why growing even a little bit of our own food is so important. Even if you only start a container garden for some herbs and a tomato plant, every little bit makes a difference.

– We can also reduce our meat consumption. Meat is much more costly to produce than grains and energy is lost in the process of feeding grains to animals. “Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.” – Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler

– Become aware of your food waste and look for ways to reduce it. Take smaller portions and go back for seconds if needed. Buy only what you will consume so you aren’t throwing away produce once it goes bad. Teach your children about food waste and how to reduce it.

Compost your food waste.

I want to hear from you too. What do you think will help with the food crisis? What are you personally doing to make a difference?

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

Bloggers UniteToday bloggers around the world are uniting to blog about human rights. “Bloggers Unite For Human Rights challenges bloggers everywhere to help elevate human rights by drawing attention to the challenges and successes of human rights issues on May 15.”

I won’t have my human rights post up until later this evening – better late than never – but for now I want to share what others are blogging about today. Also be sure to check out CNN’s coverage of Bloggers for Human Rights and leave a comment with a link to your human rights post and I will add you to the list. Thank you.

What other bloggers are raising awareness about today:

To learn more and get involved, visit Bloggers Unite for Human Rights