Unraveling the roots of malnutrition in Haiti

March 18, 2015

This article was originally posted on Epicure & Culture on February 19, 2015.

By Heidi Reed, Communications Manager, Edesia

Haiti is a tropical paradise where babies can be seen flying through crowded streets at fast speeds on motorbikes held tightly in the arms of their guardians. There are so many pressing needs in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, public safety hasn’t yet made the list.

On a recent visit to Cap-Haitian, I took a closer look at Haiti’s overwhelming malnutrition problem (nearly 50% of the population is undernourished) through the eyes of Second Mile Haiti, a nonprofit organization founded by two Americans, Jenn Schenk and Amy Syres, who first met in this northern part of Haiti while doing orphanage work in 2011.

One of the things Schenk and Syres noticed while working at the orphanage was how Plumpy’Nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic food invented by Nutriset in France in 1996 to treat severe acute malnutrition in young children, had a tendency to create a culture of reliance on a special hand-out to make life better.

Photo: Heidi Reed/Edesia

Photo: Heidi Reed/Edesia

To counter this kind of short-term thinking, Second Mile Haiti placed education and mentoring at the heart of their work. Their rural program site—reached after driving down a muddy, unpaved road—has milking cows, goats, chickens, a huge vegetable garden, and very few non-Haitians in sight.

While severely malnourished children are rehabilitated by Plumpy’Nut (which is now made locally in Haiti by Meds & Food for Kids and in eight other countries worldwide, including the United States) caregivers (mostly mothers, aunties, grandmothers) at Second Mile are taught how to care for their sick and malnourished child in a setting that is not so different than their own home. They live on-site four nights a week in a basic room with a simple bed, a polished cement floor that can be swept easily, and a large pink mosquito net.

Re-learning self-reliance and problem solving is central to Second Mile Haiti’s model. While in the program, caregivers are given responsibilities to make them feel more invested. Throughout their stay, while their children are monitored daily by on-site Haitian nurses, women attend Haitian-run classes in literacy, nutrition, hygiene, gardening, and starting a new business. Once the children are healthy, the women go back home, often with veggies in their arms, more skilled and empowered to create a healthier future for their entire families.

The roots of malnutrition in Haiti are complex Syres, a registered nurse, shared with me. Lack of knowledge about nutritious food choices compounds the lack of diverse food choices in poor households in Haiti. Nutritional deficiencies may be worsened by recurrent parasitic infections, common in tropical climates, or an imbalance of gut flora; topics that Syres follows closely as she helps evolve Second Mile Haiti’s programming.

We saw the possible outcome of a nutritional deficiency while at Second Mile: a malnourished child with hydrocephalus, whose brain was stretched to its maximum by fluid. It’s something extremely painful for the child that is rarely seen so visibly in the United States. There’s only one hospital in Port-au-Prince that performs the necessary operation to help children with this birth defect, which is not easily accessible from Cap-Haitian. In these cases, Second Mile Haiti helps pay for caregivers to get to where they need to go. It’s just another way that they help create a public safety net in a country that has so few.