The Cost of Saving Lives with Local Peanuts in Haiti

An enriched peanut butter is being use in impoverished areas of Haiti to help malnourished children regain their health, but producing local peanut butter, which also helps keep people employed, is an expensive enterprise. As NPR reports, “Even in poor countries, local food often turns out to be more expensive food.”

[. . .] The prescription? Medika Mamba, Creole for “peanut butter medicine.” This peanut butter has a lot of extra ingredients: milk powder, oil, sugar and all the vitamins and minerals a growing child needs. After three or four weeks of eating this daily package of energy and nutrients, the children will be fine, she says. [. . .] This recipe has transformed the treatment of malnutrition. A French doctor, Andre Briend, came up with it just over a decade ago. In much of the world, it’s called Plumpy’Nut. Among specialists, it’s called ready-to-use therapeutic food, or just RUTF. [. . .]

Pat Wolff, a pediatrician from St. Louis, has been living that tension. In 2003, she founded an organization, Meds and Food for Kids, specifically to bring ready-to-use therapeutic food to Haiti. It started small, grinding up peanuts in a rented house in Cap-Haitien and stirring all of the ingredients together. The group called its product Medika Mamba and distributed it to local clinics. [. . .] By this time, about five years ago, peanut paste had become big business. UNICEF was buying millions of dollars’ worth of it every year for distribution in Haiti alone. But UNICEF was buying it from pristine, quality-controlled factories far away — mostly in France. (The leading manufacturer is Nutriset, based in Normandy.) The peanuts came from Argentina, among other places.

Wolff decided MFK could become UNICEF’s supplier, with a factory right in Haiti, employing Haitian workers and buying peanuts from Haitian farmers. [. . .] The factory, just a few miles from the slums of Cap-Haitien, is filled with stainless steel machines spitting out little sealed packages of enriched peanut butter. Those packages will go to UNICEF, or the World Food Program, and then to hospitals and clinics all over Haiti. An even bigger impact of this local production might be felt in the countryside, among Haitian farmers who grow peanuts.

Jamie Rhoads, who’s been living in Haiti since 2003 and working with MFK since 2009, is in charge of the organization’s work with farmers. As we drive out to meet some of them, Rhoads talks about the potential of this area, the northern plain of Haiti. In colonial times, he says, it was among the richest agricultural areas in the world. “The soil fertility is really good; there’s water everywhere; it’s, like, this gold mine of agricultural wealth waiting to happen. I mean, look around you — it’s totally green. They can grow whatever they want here.”

When we get to the farm, we walk right into the middle of a peanut-harvesting party. I see big piles of peanut plants, just pulled from the earth. Men and women are sitting beside them, picking peanuts off the roots and dropping them into buckets. The women are singing; young men are playing wooden flutes. These farmers are growing peanuts for MFK’s new peanut butter factory, and MFK is helping them do it more cheaply. The organization brought in a small tractor to help clear the fields and also sprayed the plants with a chemical that controls fungal diseases. As a result, the farmers tell me, they’re getting almost twice as many peanuts as in previous years. [. . .]

[. . .]These local peanuts still cost too much, in large part because small Haitian farmers have so little machinery. They have to pay people to plant by hand, weed by hand and harvest the peanuts by hand. So Meds and Food for Kids actually pays more for these Haitian peanuts than peanuts it imports from Argentina, and that higher cost is tough to pass along to customers, Rhoads says. “UNICEF and others are very price sensitive, and we’re competing with the international market.” [. . .] But the big, long-term goal, Jamie Rhoads says, is to keep working with the peanut farmers, helping them grow more peanuts for less money.

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