Peanut Butter Miracles

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

As always, there are problems. Recently, a batch of medika mamba had a very high aerobic count, meaning there were some foreign microorganisms within the peanut butter that made it vulnerable to spoilage. The whole batch had to be thrown out.

Wolff, who was in St. Louis at the time, takes the news calmly. Still, she bombards Ken Thercy, the systems engineer, with questions. Were some of the plastic bins in the factory contaminated? Did the staff close all the windows and doors? Did everyone change their clothes before they went to work?

Thercy isn't sure what happened, but he assures Wolff that subsequent batches have been fine. She extracts a promise that he'll check the pH content of the water every week to make sure it's not too acidic.

One in five Haitian children is malnourished. One in ten dies before his or her fifth birthday.
One in five Haitian children is malnourished. One in ten dies before his or her fifth birthday.
Meds & Food for Kids is looking for a way to greatly expand its output to reach more kids and meet ­UNICEF standards. The site of the new factory has already attracted squatters.
Meds & Food for Kids is looking for a way to greatly expand its output to reach more kids and meet ­UNICEF standards. The site of the new factory has already attracted squatters.

The good news is that the peanuts weren't contaminated with aflatoxin, a mold that thrives in hot, moist climates like Haiti's and can be deadly if ingested. Several years ago, hurricanes made dry storage almost impossible, and there were very few aflatoxin-free peanuts to be found in the entire country. In Popper and Dowd's documentary, there's a scene of Rhoads staring in despair at a pallet that holds $800 worth of bad peanuts.

"The board members said the project was over," Wolff remembers. "I said, 'It's not over. People need to eat.' I started calling aflatoxin experts in the U.S., and we set up a program for abating aflatoxin."

In the Haitian coutryside, farmers don't like to try new methods of peanut growing or experiment with fungicides.

"If you educate 400 farmers," Wolff posits, "ten will do it the way you taught them, and the other 390 will do it the way their father and grandfather taught them." But she understands: "If you're living on a shoestring, would you take risks? No."

Jamie Rhoads is MFK's ambassador to the farmers. He speaks fluent Creole, learned during a period in his late teens when he lived in a village in southern Haiti so remote it was only accessible by a two-hour hike through the forest. He has a longstanding love/hate relationship with the country. When, after he got his master's in agronomy from Cornell, Wolff asked him to come and work for MFK, it took him a month to say yes.

These days he travels to several towns within a one-hour radius of Cap-Haïtien and persuades local farmers to form peanut-­growing cooperatives. "One person organizes all the farmers in the community and distributes the money," Rhoads explains. "It's easier than MFK going house-to-house."

Coeurcius Jonas leads the cooperative in Bas-Limbé, a 30-minute drive west of Cap-Haïtien. It's less a town than a collection of tiny houses nestled between the main dirt road and the fields. People draw their water from a pump in the front yard and hang their clothes to dry on trees.

Jonas grows corn and peas and, this year, peanuts, all mingled together so his fields look like gardens. His neighbors grow okra and cassava and sugarcane; only one has bothered to plow. "There's a mixed crop because they're hedging their bets," Rhoads says. The peanut plants, tiny and low to the ground, are good for filling up extra space in the fields.

"Peanuts are suited for Haitian growing conditions," Rhoads explains. "The soil is high in calcium, which is good for peanuts. But there's no winter, so there's lots of disease pressure, which is exacerbated by high temperatures and drought. They don't have post-harvest technology to dry and store the peanuts properly, so a tiny bit of mold will spread like wildfire."

Rhoads routinely consults with agronomists in the United States, and plans to try out new fungicides and maybe experiment with a new variety of peanut from India that has a shorter growing period.

This year Rhoads persuaded Jonas to allow him to spray fungicide over one of his fields. They planted the peanuts three months ago and, although the crop won't be ready for harvest for another four to six weeks, the two men walk out into the field for an inspection.

Rhoads finds a few rusty spots on some of the peanut leaves. "That's a sign of aflatoxin," he says, "but late-leaf spot won't do much damage." He pulls the plant from the ground. Damp white embryonic peanuts dangle from the roots.

Though the peanut plants in this field appear healthier than the ones that haven't been sprayed with fungicide, Rhoads is still unsure of the outcome. "Will one spray keep it down?" he asks rhetorically. "I don't know."

Wolff's ultimate plan is to set up a "farmer school" where MFK will till the soil and plant peanuts. Different plots will have different growing conditions, and the Haitian farmers will be able to see which strategy works best. Wolff wants to be strict: "We'll tell them, 'We will buy your peanuts, if you will do it right.'"

Shada is the worst slum in Cap-Haïtien. It sits on what used to be a mangrove swamp. Now there's a riverbank made of garbage. The air smells like the inside of a Dumpster, with top notes of human waste. Naked babies sit by themselves in the dirt alleys, playing in shit. No one in Shada has a job. No one goes to school. A little girl wearing nothing but a T-shirt dances for money. Her hair has turned red from protein deficiency.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets