When greeting a Haitian child, I typically get one of two reactions. More often than not, it’s an exuberant “Bonjou!” (Hello) because they are so happy to see you. They are aglow with beautiful smiles that seem to take up their entire face. The alternative response is inquisitively locking eyes with you, seeming to be unsure whether or not it’s permissible to speak with me. All I need do is give a friendly smile and a small wave and these skeptical children instantly melt one’s heart with a grin of sincere happiness. In either case, the Haitian children we have met share unabashed, genuine joy.
It is difficult to know that these same children have been starving. Being unsure about when we will eat our next meal is difficult for us to comprehend. However, for children in Haiti this is a reality, particularly for the children in the South Bayonnais valley which did not receive much rain in 2015 due to drought impact. The annual food crop for these sustenance farming communities was significantly reduced. In January, 2016, the leaders of the Valley came to Northern Friends of Haiti (NFoH) with a plea to help feed the children. NFoH decided this needed to be a priority for the organization. They immediately began working with community leaders to create an emergency response program which included distributing food to the eighteen (18) schools located within the valley as part of a school meal program that reached approximately 3,000 children.
The impact of this response is incredible. It is difficult to describe the scene until one witnesses this level of poverty first hand; the stories of the children here are impossible to recreate. They are starving, yet they patiently wait to receive their one meal of the day. Then upon receiving their distribution, they wait for their peers to receive their ration before they begin to consume their own meal. They eat their food in the same way we see their elders walk from village to village; they take their time and enjoy what they have. What is more, the children willingly share their portion with a sibling or a friend who is perhaps experiencing even greater hunger. Older children divvy up parts of their meal for younger children who desperately need more calories and nutrients. This is the way these people live. Most are on the fringe of survival yet they do their best to take care of one another because they are in this life together.
The nutritional content they receive from this food program is not enough, but it is adequate to sustain life. Some of the children may have another meal that day, but most probably do not. Each meal is 40% of the caloric intake recommended for an active, healthy, American child. NFoH has partnered with several larger organizations, who have donated pallets of food to support the program from March through September, 2016. Pastors, teachers and community members in each village cook and serve the food for the children Monday through Friday. The meals consist of rice, beans and “Manna Pacs” (rice meal with added nutrients) to help assure the children are receiving as many daily vitamins and minerals as possible.
Signs of malnutrition among the children are everywhere in the valley but, according to Mark Gilbert, founder of Northern Friends of Haiti, the children look much healthier in general than they did three months ago. This, in major part if not completely, is due to NFoH’s school meal program. The initiative helped the children get through the winter, spring and summer months as crops were planted and began producing once again. The hope now is that families will soon begin harvesting these crops and once again be able to feed their families. Providing food to this community was one small, need-based tactic NFoH implemented to help the communities endure a historically tough drought. Although this was a short-term program, it is important to recognize that NFoH is committed to maintaining a continuous presence in this Valley. Through building partnerships and introducing agricultural programs, the hope is that the South Bayonnais communities will develop sustainable methods for providing food security without future dependency on outside aid.
Written by Erika Ghent, NFoH team member in Haiti