Haiti holds a special place in my heart. In college, I took my first trip to Haiti. It was a 10-day service trip through my aunt and uncle’s organization. It was a year after the devastating earth quake that hit Haiti, and I witnessed poverty and malnutrition like I had never seen before. I was greatly moved from the inside-out. After graduation, I headed back to Haiti for a month and worked along side a Haitian doctor. While examining kids at the orphanages, all I could think was— what are these children eating! Many of them had infections and colds– conditions I knew could be prevented (or reduced symptoms) with a quality diet.
What an honor to be nominated as a “Dietitian Hero” and to be featured in Food and Nutrition Magazine.
Several months after this trip, the organization asked me to look into nutritional supplements for the kiddos that would be moving into a new orphanage, Grace Village. I conducted nutrition assessments on over 50+ children on one of my trips. Using the World Health Organization growth charts, I decided that a handful of them would benefit from addition calories– so we started them on locally produced supplements. For the rest of the children, looking at overall meal patterns and making changes to the feeding center would greatly improve their overall health. So, the mission began! I decided several months after assessing the children that it would be best to move to Haiti to have more oversight of day-to-day activities with the children’s growth and the meals being served. So I did it! I packed up my bags, hopped on a plan, and landed in what became my second home.
I had come just in time, as the children’s home had just received new children that were rescued from a fake orphanage. They were extremely malnourished, more so than many of the other kids I had done assessments on. I will never forget this experience working with these children. Reality hit me quickly that I was in a very poor country with a lot of political turmoil when a protest occurred on market day in our town. We had little food in our feeding center, and we were also trying to re-feed malnourished children. Thankfully, we still managed to fill empty bellies and were able to get to a market the following day. This entire experience was one of the most eye-opening and challenging experiences I have had as a dietitian. For many people around the world, access to healthy food is impacted by political and war-torn situations. Healthy food exists on the Island of Haiti, but often times access to getting it can be impacted by a number of factors including transportation, poor road quality, political situations, environmental disasters… and more.
Part of my mission while I was in Haiti was to help improve the dietary intake of these children through the meals being served at the orphanage. I worked along side so many wonderful Haitian staff members that really helped me to understand about the food culture in Haiti. We used African Heritage materials from Oldways to talk about healthy eating from a native, cultural perspective; this seemed to really resonate with a lot of the staff. Several days after presenting the materials to them, the staff had created meals that their parents had made for them. I will never forget the day we made “Chaka” (a bean broth and coconut soup with dried corn) and one of the girls smiled at me and told me her mom used to make it for her. That memory is forever etched in my mind.
Learning from the Haitian people was one of the most valuable parts of my experience. I had some great teachers that really opened my eyes to a number of issues around food in Haiti (e.g. imported white rice is making it harder for Haitian rice to sell- therefore, impacting Haitian farmers). In addition to educating staff and the kiddos about the importance of preserving their health through heritage, we also tried to focus on supporting local farmers as much as possible by buying Haitian rice, as well as other local grains and produce.
Being able to live and work alongside such remarkable Haitians will forever be one of my favorite life experience. I faced a lot of challenges along the way, but couldn’t have done what I did in Haiti without the team of Haitians I worked with and that taught me along the way. While I have been recognized as a “hero” from my profession, the real heroes are really the Haitian staff members that taught me so much. I am so blessed to know them and have them be apart of my story.
One of my passions is helping people in low income communities have access to healthy food and nutrition education. All kiddos– and all people— deserve to have access to healthy, nourishing food. It is a fundamental human right to have access to food that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit.