Peanut Butter Miracles

Amid the chaos that is Haiti, Dr. Patricia Wolff has made ending child malnutrition her life's work.

Members of the neighborhood bucket brigade who had put out the fire had also made off with MFK's car keys. There was nothing to do but fly back to St. Louis and organize a fund-raising drive so they could start all over again.
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After seven years, Wolff and the Haitians are still trying to figure each other out.

"Working with Dr. Pat has been very interesting," says Maryse Sterlin Sine, the factory's general administrator. "She's very demanding" — she laughs — "like a typical American. Americans expect things to be" — she snaps her fingers — "one-two-three."

Any peanuts showing signs of mold will be discarded — aflatoxin thrives in Haiti's hot, moist climate.
Any peanuts showing signs of mold will be discarded — aflatoxin thrives in Haiti's hot, moist climate.
Many Haitian farmers won't try new ways of growing peanuts. MFK board members Mark Breihan and Paul Kindl confer with Jamie Rhoads and farmer Coeurcius Jonas, who leads a local cooperative.
Many Haitian farmers won't try new ways of growing peanuts. MFK board members Mark Breihan and Paul Kindl confer with Jamie Rhoads and farmer Coeurcius Jonas, who leads a local cooperative.

Sine, an authoritative woman in her forties, was born in Haiti but lived 18 years in New York and New Jersey. ("I hated it.") It usually falls to her to explain Haitian culture to Wolff and the other Americans — things like when Haitians say "eight days," they actually mean "one week."

"The culture of work is different," Wolff reflects. "It's difficult to get across the idea that the American idea of work is much more strict. We've had to impose our idea of work — and the Haitians consider it imposing. Showing up to work for a boss is a foreign concept. A lot of Haitians work for themselves. The employment situation has an underlying theme: We will never be slaves again."

Dealing with the Haitian bureaucracy can be just as difficult. One morning last month, Wolff and several staff and board members went to a Haitian notary's office to buy a one-and-a-half-acre parcel of land for the new factory. They brought with them a pile of paperwork and a check for $157,500. An hour later, they left again, without a deed for the property. The paperwork was insufficient, the notary told them. They needed to fill out more forms and produce more signatures. The owners needed to be present.

It took two more weeks for the deal to go through. Although Haitian law states that the notary fee should be one percent, the notary tried to charge MFK 5 percent, or an additional $7,875, for his services. Wolff negotiated him down to 4 percent on the grounds that MFK is a nonprofit.

"If it had been Haitian-to-Haitian," she says, "it would have been 3 percent. But that's the way things are done. It's a Robin Hood idea."
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Last August, the peanut-butter factory finally passed its international food safety inspection. Still, it received the rating "adequate, but suboptimal" in so many categories that the phrase has become a joke among the MFK staff.

That it exists at all, says filmmaker Lori Dowd, "is a fucking miracle."

By the end of next year, Wolff hopes to build a new factory capable of producing enough of the peanut-butter supplement to be able to supply UNICEF and USAID, the two biggest aid organizations in Haiti. It's a project Wolff estimates will cost $2 million. MFK has raised half that sum already from grants and donations, and now that they have the land, they'll be able to break ground later this summer.

The current factory produces 22,000 pounds of medika mamba every month. Administrative offices and a large storeroom occupy the first floor of the two-story pink concrete house; the upstairs houses the peanut-butter-making equipment, a peanut-testing lab and packaging facilities. Nobody, not even Wolff, is allowed upstairs without first donning a hair net, a pair of paper booties and a lab coat.

The four-chamber, propane-powered peanut dryer dominates the courtyard. (It's so large, a full-grown adult can climb inside.) The peanut-shelling machine sits on a covered platform. Two workers sift through the shelled nuts by hand, looking for mold. There's also a machine shed and a small lean-to where a woman named Therese cooks lunch for all the workers.

The whole operation is hidden from the outside world by a concrete wall ten feet high and topped with barbed wire. On the other side, there's an open field where small children roam among oxen and cows, and squatters have built an open cooking fire on a pile of old tires.

The first step in making medika mamba is to dry and shell the peanuts. Then you roast them and grind them into a paste. In a large Hobart industrial mixer, you combine the powdered milk, sugar, oil and vitamins. Then you run it all through the grinder again to refine the sugar granules. The result is a sweet, creamy, gloppy substance that tastes remarkably similar to the product you can buy in an American supermarket.

No American peanut-butter manufacturer, however, produces batches as small as MFK's. All the equipment has been rigged to serve the organization's purposes: The Hobart, for instance, was originally intended to mix pizza dough. "It's from the head of Zeus," Wolff jokes, shuffling between the two tabletop grinders in her paper booties. "Nobody uses it but us."

In the final stage, three workers, dressed in dark blue hospital scrubs donated by Wolff's colleagues at Washington University, spoon the peanut butter in 1.1-pound quantities into plastic bags, seal them and place them, 40 at a time, into cardboard boxes, which will eventually be transported by truck to the distribution center in Port-au-Prince.

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