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Dietitian off duty in Haiti – 6 unexpected food observations

A Maritimes dietitian reflects on her food and nutrition related experiences while volunteering in Port au Prince, Haiti.


JFM-HS.jpgJohanna McLeod graduated with a BSc in Applied Human Nutrition from Mount Saint Vincent University in 2000. Currently she is working at an occupational rehabilitation centre supporting injured workers by way of nutrition at WorkSafeNB in Saint John. She started long distance running after university and has completed three marathons, 12 half marathons and two triathlons. Outside of working part time, you will find her volunteering between her three children’s elementary schools, children’s programs at her church, or at Outflow ministries. Johanna recently spent nine days in Haiti doing construction work and building relationships and trust in the community of Mais Gate.  

  

Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with income per capita estimated at $2 USD per day. Residents deal with political instability, poor nutrition, deficient sanitation systems, and reduced access to health care services and vaccinations. The earthquake on January 12, 2010 made life even more challenging for the people of Haiti.

In December 2015, I had the opportunity to go with a team of five on a nine day trip to the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. This trip (not related to work) was part of a three year partnership between Kings Church (Saint John, NB) and l’Eglise Wesleyanne de Mais Gate (Haiti) to do construction work at their school and build relationships and trust in the community of Mais Gate. 

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Considering my past travel experience consisted of Dietitians of Canada conferences, a few tropical vacations with my husband, and a trip to Disneyworld with my family, I was in for a surprise.
 
Our host family can attest to the fact that although I was on “vacation” from work, the dietitian in me was still on high alert. They answered my battery of food-related questions, entertained my photography of virtually every meal, and took me on two trips to the local grocery stores, which had entrances guarded by armed security personnel.
 
I made many observations related to food and nutrition on my mission trip to Port au Prince. Here are six I would like to share with you:
  1. Food is certainly available, but not accessible for many
A quick drive from the guest house to our job site at the school each day revealed many people selling fruit, bread, vegetables, and meat on the side of the road or centralized in small markets on side streets.
The wide variety and abundance of fresh foods for sale was almost shocking. There appears to be plenty of food. However, with limited financial resources, everyone does not have access to nutritious food daily.
  1. Prices vary significantly within categories
Many foods sent from North America are expensive. One of our co-host families shared that they bring favourite foods from the USA when they are there for training.
 
In Canadian dollars, a family sized turkey was approximately $80, a package of Oscar Mayer bacon was yours for $21, and imported boxes of strawberries or grapes would set you back $17-$21.
 
Some foods were priced comparably to Canada, such as fresh carrots, and frozen vegetables. Other items were considerably less expensive, such as $0.32 for a 500 mL bottle of water.
  1. Fresh fruit is served in limited quantities
I expected we would see fresh fruit as part of many meals in this Caribbean country. However, I had not considered the cost to access it in the off season. 
 
Haiti produces and exports many beautiful fruit crops such as avocado, pineapple, mango, watermelon, lime, and coconut. There were coconuts, limes, and avocadoes growing on trees at the guest house.
 
But many crops are seasonal  and fruit purchased in store can be very expensive. Fresh fruit was served about once daily. My favourite was the freshly made mango juice served at the guest house and at Epi D’Or, the local “fast food restaurant.”
  1. People share – a lot
Despite having access to fewer tangible resources and less food than us in Canada, the Haitian people share. We were fortunate to interact with the preschool to grade nine students while working in the school each day.

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Their water was provided in small mini sip like bags. They would chew the corners off and share among their circle of friends. On a particularly hot 42° C day, one young student appeared with a freezie in his hand. Only after he took the freezie and placed it on our hot Canadian foreheads, did he chew the top off and share it with about 15 other children without being prodded to do so!
  1. Hot lunch, for over 200 students, is a one-person show
The school we worked at was largely populated by sponsored children. Of the 270 students, about two thirds had sponsors. Two days per week, these students have lunch provided. Other students could purchase this lunch for about 5-30 gourdes or approximately 10-60 cents Canadian. 
 
Madame Fidell prepared pastry-like pockets with hotdogs, or a stew type meal with sweet potatoes for the students who were getting the lunch. One woman, several pots, one fire. She was incredible.
 
1hot-school-lunch-SM.JPG
 
  1. Haitian food customs are unique. 
Lime juice is used to clean raw meat before it is cooked for food safety purposes. Even if meat has been stored safely in the freezer, they will wash it with lime juice first.
 
Liquids are not served with meals, with the exception of juice on occasion, so we would bring our own water to the table. A popular meal of “Haitian spaghetti” was noodles and tomato sauce with chopped hot dogs served for breakfast or lunch. This was my first time eating hot dogs in about 15 years. 
 
One of my team members wanted us to try a Haitian drink, so he picked up a bottle of “eau de mais” (corn water) at the grocery store. It is sold near the juice and sports drinks. It had a very strong, sour odor and similar unpleasant taste. We learned the next day that eau de mais is used as a cooking ingredient to produce a pudding type dish. It’s not meant to be consumed as a beverage!
 
I left Haiti feeling as though I had a better understanding of food security, food sharing, and blessed by life and food accessibility in Canada. 
 
Have you ever traveled to a new country “off duty” and experienced any special food experiences or a food faux pas as we did with the eau de mais? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below. Happy travels!
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Editor’s note: This concludes the two part series on traveling or working abroad as a dietitian. I hope Johanna and Laura’s posts have inspired you to embark on some of your own adventures. If so, be sure to share them with me when you return!

Do you have questions or comments for Johanna? Please leave them in the comments section below. 
 
  1. Hi Karen,
    The kids were always smiling there and very happy to see us each day. I think I was more emotional before we departed Canada at the anticipation of the situations we could see while we were there, but the Haitian people are so faith filled and joyful, we were very happy to be working alongside them. Johanna
  2. Hi Andrea, Enlightening is a good word to describe the trip to Haiti. As I returned home in the weeks prior to Christmas it was that much more dramatic to see the differences between Haiti and all the excesses we have in Canada.

    The organization I went with was Kings Valley Church (recently renamed Kings Church). Info on the partnership should be found here: (though with the recent name change, I suspect at some point the web address will change). http://kingsvalley.ca/missions/haiti-partnership/

    Thanks for commenting. Johanna
  3. Hi Naomi, I imagine there would be a lot of parallels between Haiti and Northern Nicaragua. I definitely noticed the regular consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, especially "Couronne" (Haiti's most popular soda), that tasted much like cream soda here in Canada. We were also provided with a variety of canned fruit drinks in our packed lunches each day. Thanks for commenting. Johanna
  4. My husband is a co-founder of a business and non-profit in Northern Nicaragua and we live there for part of the year. Your observations really resonated with me. I could write a book on my food experiences! Even after several years I continue to be humbled by how generous the locals are when they don't have much to give. But I also find that they consume a lot of candies and sugar-sweetened beverages as they are cheap and readily available. Did you observe this in Haiti?

    Thanks for sharing
  5. What an incredible opportunity! Thanks for sharing - it was so great hear about such an enlightening experience!! Did you volunteer through a particular program?
  6. Thanks for sharing your international volunteer experience, Johanna. What a great opportunity for you. I loved how the Haitians, including the children, shared their meagre resources and the photo of you with the smiling children.

    Warm regards
    karen

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