This blog is inspired by my wife Shelley’s passionate facebook plea with a Wisconsin church to not send peanut butter to Haiti. I thought a more in depth explanation might be helpful, interesting, and possibly motivational, so here goes…
Now that Haiti has dropped from fad-disaster-charity-icon status, it is good to see a few churches still caring, and more importantly, ACTING on behalf of the poor here. After all, Jesus’ says he doesn’t have much to do with people who neglect those without food and income. Yet, while I’m infinitely appreciative of churches that take seriously the Biblical mandate to prioritize the plight of the poor and suffering, I’m concerned that so many of us have neglected that mandate for so long that when we recognize our grave oversight, we rush into service without thinking through the impact of our actions or getting to know those we intend to serve. My friend, Ed Cook, once gave me some great advice about service: “Don’t just do something, stand there! …then do something.” We need to venture out into the deep, vital waters of serving the poor, but we can’t do a cannon ball into a situation that deserves a swan dive.
Landmark Christian Church in Lake Hallie, Wisconsin (see video & link above) is passionately offering its time and resources in response to Haiti’s malnutrition and hunger problems. The pastor of LCC says “What we are hoping to do is send about 28,000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti. The children there just don’t have a good source of protein. Peanut butter is a wonderful source. Ounce for ounce, about the same protein as pork.” I agree that many Haitians’ have a diet with less than sufficient protein and I’m glad that this Church cares enough to do something about it, but, in unfortunate irony, the well-meaning pastor named two of Haiti’s staple protein sources: peanuts and pork. Mamba (peanut butter) and Grillo (salted fried pork) are beloved Haitian foods, both coming from native sources and farmed here on Hispaniola since before Columbus made his first landing. What do you imagine 28,000 jars of peanut butter coming to this island and being given away might do to the local businesses of peanut farmers, mamba manufacturers, and retailers? Good intentions to save Haiti have already all but ended the long legacy of the Creole Pig‘s positive nutritional and economic impact, and now the kindhearted, peanut butter-wielding, generous faithful of Wisconsin are posing a benevolent threat to Haiti’s “pistache”.
The misguided declaration that Haitians “Don’t have a good source of protein,” reminds me of the recent adaptation of the U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Haiti. You can read the whole thing here. It offers a very strong discouragement from visiting Haiti, which is portrayed in bleakest terms. Murders, kindnappings, political instability: all the makings of a Jason Bourne film (or a devastated tourism industry along the Caribbean’s most untouched beachline). I’m told by people with connections to the embassy that the U.S. travel warnings are written by somebody whose pay scale is dependent upon how dangerous their station of duty is. In other words, the worse Haiti sounds, the higher the threat level, the better the annual income that the author of the Haiti travel warning receives, because they have to work in this “hazardous duty station”. I don’t know if that is true, but that’s the rumor here. And even if it is only a rumor, it would have no life if those of us who live here weren’t so shocked by the things these warnings say. They don’t adequately describe what we see here every day. But, staying on the food topic, the part of the travel warning that raised my eyebrows was this:
“If you intend to work for an organization involved in relief efforts in Haiti, be aware that living conditions are difficult and the availability of food supplies, clean drinking water and adequate shelter is limited. If you are seeking work with a relief organization you should confirm before traveling to Haiti that the organization has the capability to provide food, water, transportation, and shelter for its paid and volunteer workers.”
If this is true, at least humor us and give us a season of “Survivor: Haiti”. I want to see Jeff Probst stir disputes at tribal counsel after somebody fails their tribe by refusing to swallow an entire fillet of cat. This travel warning makes it sound as if working in Haiti will require you to scavenge the dilapidated ruins of some earthquake ravaged gas station mini mart, searching for the last crumb of a post-apocalyptic twinky that the roaches haven’t yet discovered. The travel warning also implies that the only reason an American might come to Haiti is to offer emergency relief, as if settling in and developing something sustainable or simply living a normal life is unheard of here.
Those of us who live in Haiti and frequent one of the hundreds of local markets or the scores of grocery stores here know that food scarcity in Haiti is simply not the issue. There is plenty of food in Haiti… if you have money. The food is not cheap and the produce is not always as cosmetically enhanced as what you may see in your American super market, but it’s here. All around. And it’s for sale. If you have an income. Oh… and 70-90% of the food is American. That’s a big part of why there are no jobs in Haiti. The unemployment rate hovers hauntingly around the same percentage as the imported food rate. As American imported goods, largely sent as food aid, have swept into the Haitian market, Haitian farmers could not compete with the low prices offered by U.S. farmed grains. The prices of American grains have been lowered dramatically by excessive production and government subsidies. (Have you seen King Corn or Food Inc?) Our cheap food is not only making us fat, but it’s making the world poor and dependent.
Bill Clinton, in what has to be one of the most redemptive moments in international politics I’ve ever seen, publicly renounced American international food aid policies and apologized for the way in which his own tarrifs and relief strategies in Haiti effectively increased poverty and sapped the dignity of the poor. He says, ““It was a mistake. . . I have to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti.” Why? Because of the rice we gave away to Haitians. Clinton says our generosity helped Arkansas farmers while hurting the Haitian people.
I’m very excited to see the film “Hands that Feed” when I get a chance. This film promises to give a more thorough treatment to the issue of Haitian food sovereignty. You can see a trailer of sorts here: Hands That Feed- Video Pitch. If we don’t change our ways of thinking about charity, Haiti will be kept in poverty as a result of well meaning, good-hearted, generous people who don’t understand the dynamics of poverty, aid, relief, and development.
Landmark Christian Church is not the only ministry gearing up to ship peanut butter to Haiti. Lifeline Christian Mission has a goal of distributing 90,000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti every year, and has already sent 350,000 since 2002. Comparably, we see far more boxes of “Feed My Starving Children” rice than we see bags of Haitian grown rice. This is bought by churches and private Christian donors from American sources and then shipped to Haiti. This is poor stewardship. If just the shipping cost were invested into developing sustainable agriculture, developing compost programs, and purchasing seeds an irrigation technology, the aid rice would not be needed. I’m not saying to cut off all aid, but that anybody involved in food aid ought, as a matter of conscience, be investing at least as much into development of sustainable food sources as they are into the expensive and unsustainable practice of shipping in foreign food. They also ought to purchase as much as possible of the food they are contributing from the nations that they are trying to help.
After the earthquake we saw a charicature of Haiti: Merchants sitting trying to sell their produce while banks did not yet function. Everybody was hungry, there was plenty of food, and nobody had any money. That’s not so different from the macroeconomic picture in Haiti today. I encourage anybody who can do so in as kind a manner as possible to personally contact food ministries and aid organizations and suggest that they buy indigenous foods, seek to sharply discern the moment at which emergencies that demand relief are no longer emergencies, and strive to develop agriculture in places of hunger. Call Lifeline Christian Mission. Call Feed My Starving Children. Don’t call Landmark Christian Church (We’ve already overwhelmed them from Facebook traffic). Contact the news station that ran the Landmark Church peanut butter story. Definitely contact your favorite orphanage or charity in Haiti and tell them that you want to help them find ways to spend your money to purchase local goods so that your giving doesn’t further break the Haitian economy. Make a big no-strings attached financial donation to show your unconditional support. (People don’t make positive decisions for change when they feel controlled by somebody’s funds, they make changes because you care and are committed to them, no matter what they do). At the Apparent Project we are working on making it easier for organizations to find locally produced items and will soon blog a list of resources along those lines. In the meantime, if you are thinking about sending something to Haiti, a good place to start looking for indigenous Haitian alternative products is haiti.buildingmarkets.org or the local “509 Business directory” that is available in print at locations such as Handal. Your money will go a lot farther if you don’t have to ship something and if you don’t undercut the local economy.
If you want to help address the broad malnourishment and emergency food needs in Haiti, the best option, in my opinion, is to buy Medika Mamba for local distribution from Meds and Food for Kids, or to make a donation to their overall mission. Medika Mamba (“Peanut Butter Medicine”) is amazing stuff. I have distributed this peanut butter after the earthquake and have seen my friends at Real Hope For Haiti save hundreds of lives using this completely Haitian-made miracle food. It tastes like a cross between a Power Bar and a Reese’s peanut butter cup, and it makes skinny kids chunky (No, that’s not Jackson’s secret). Best of all, Medika Mamba undercuts the root causes of malnutrition by providing jobs and sustainable agriculture to Haiti.
I would FULLY support Lifeline and Landmark Christian Church’s efforts if they were purchasing and distributing Haitian made peanut butter instead of spending a ton of money on shipping containers of American peanut butter to a country with the capacity to produce peanuts and loads of excellent peanut butter. Americans pack Haitian peanut butter back to the states in their suitcases because the stuff is so good. Some of it is made with a spicy pepper added to give it a real creole kick. Heck, Haitians even write songs about their peanut butter! There are many local peanut butter producers, such as REBO (who also makes some of the best coffee in the world) or PIDY, not to mention hundreds of local ma & pa mamba makers that sell in the grocery stores. You can even order Haitian mamba online to be delivered in a gift basket with other Haitian foods: http://haititrading.com/Goupam/index.html
George Washington Carver, the freed slave and inventor who re-discovered peanut butter and revolutionized farming practices in the south, once said, “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also – if you love them enough.” This is such perfect wisdom for those who wish to help the poor. Don’t treat the poor like a problem. When we hear “malnourishment” let’s not think of skinny kids with gaping baby bird mouths grasping and gasping for food. The only answer to this image is food. But if we treat starving people as people before we treat them as an issue, we will get at their secret. Let’s ask, why are they starving? More importantly, let’s ask THEM. Let’s love people enough to speak their language and serve them according their needs and their requests. Haitians are asking for education and jobs far more than they are looking for handouts. Let’s listen to them. Poverty is almost always avoidable. Our earth is too rich and ready to burst forth life for poverty and starvation to be natural. God didn’t abandon anybody to poverty… other forces have separated the poor from the bounty that is readily under their feet. We must love the poor to get at their secret and team up with them so that they can liberate themselves from the internal and external forces that make them hungry. This love for the poor, attention to creation, and quite a bit of prayer, is exactly how George Washington Carver discovered so many uses for the peanut in the first place.
When Jesus told his disciples to be the “salt of the earth”, I think he meant to be the spice of life, people of taste, people that bring out the best in others, people that keep the odor of death from touching the sweet things of life, people that preserve what nourishes so that it doesn’t go to waste… Unfortunately, often in spite of our best intentions, we Christians can sometimes end up being more like stinging salt in the world’s eyes, and its wounds. Of the many tears we see in Haiti, more than I’d like to say are flowing as an indirect result of the uninformed actions of the Church and others who come to help. It doesn’t have to be this way. I hope that this blog will inspire action and more thoughtful help from those of you who, like myself, want their life to be lived in the love of God, creation, and humanity.
by Corrigan Clay