Jan. 19, 2010— -- Today, thousands of Haitians may get their first real meal since last Tuesday's earthquake thanks to a small, American nonprofit group, the What If? Foundation.
This decade-old foundation was started by a Californian, Margaret Trost, to help ease the burden of malnutrition for the children of the impoverished Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.
Thanks to an influx of nearly $50,000 in donations over the past week, however, the foundation hopes to extend their program beyond its usual services in Tiplas Kazo, providing hot meals to thousands of hungry, displaced citizens in the Port-au-Prince area.
"The community there had a vision to feed the hungry among them," Trost says, and the organization, founded in 2000, has helped bring that vision to life.
The center, run predominantly by Haitians with the help of local St. Claire's church, was offering free meals to children and some adults when Tuesday's earthquake ravaged the city, temporarily closing down their kitchen.
But after the building was approved as structurally safe Sunday night, Trost and local organizer Lavarice Gaudin set their sights on reopening. Gaudin was en route from the Dominican Republic with a truckload of food -- rice, cooking oil, beans -- as of Monday afternoon in hopes of serving their first post-earthquake meal Monday night.
"Instead of our regular 1,500 meals a day, we are going to try to serve as many as possible -- could be thousands," says Trost who has been organizing the reopening with Gaudin from the foundation's headquarters in Berkeley, Calif.
"No aid has gotten to this spot yet [so] thousands of people are coming out -- they haven't eaten since the earthquake," she adds.
The foundation plans to expand their meal program as far as the donated money will allow, hopefully setting up satellite food stations to serve the homeless who have begun to congregate in outdoor, ad hoc villages in and around Port-au-Prince.
The Foundation That Feeds Thousands
The What If? Foundation came into being after Trost made a two-week volunteering trip to Port-au-Prince 10 years ago, after her husband died unexpectedly at the age of 36.
Though she had done similar volunteer work in other developing nations, Trost says she "had never seen that scale of poverty before…you could see it in their eyes. With 70 percent of Haitians living on less than two dollars a day, the opportunity to buy food that would have the nutrients kids need is not there."
"As a mother, going there and seeing children the age of my son who were hungry, I had to respond in some way," she adds.
And Trost's partnership with Gaudin and other community leaders in Tiplas Kazo has been a great success. Some people walk up to five miles to get the only meal they will have that day.
The foundation also provides classes teaching self-sufficiency skills to kids and organizes education scholarships for over 200 kids from elementary through college age.
Even more impressive – Trost has been told by visiting doctors that children in the community don't have the physical signs of malnutrition as so many other children in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti do.
"Just one meal a day, that has really helped to create a healthier generation of children in this community," Trost says.
Hunger in Haiti
Malnutrition remains an ever-present issue for citizens of Haiti -- one that has only been magnified by last week's disaster.
Chronic malnutrition affects 24 percent of children under 5 in Haiti, and that number can reach as high as 40 percent in the poorest areas, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).
With 1.9 million citizens unable to stave off hunger even before the quake, the U.N. estimates that 3 million people may need humanitarian relief, including food assistance in the wake of the earthquake.
"If you ate once a day, you were considered rich -- every meal was a miracle," Trost says. "That's how it was going into the earthquake, you add this on top -- it's catastrophic."
A number of programs like the What If? Foundation have sprung up to meet the great need for food and medical aid in Haiti.
Another such program, International Child Care (ICC), has opened clinics and Grace's Children's Hospital in Port-au-Prince and works with Haitian manufacturers to produce Medika Mamba, a product made from Haitian peanuts and nutrient supplements that is given to children diagnosed with malnutrition.
Dr. Jeannine Hatt, pediatrician and chair of the medical resources committee for the ICC, has seen patients in Port-au-Prince, and notes that the "majority of children coming through the clinics have some degree of malnutrition [and] with the situation as it is now, with the wide food shortages," she says, "this will be obviously accentuated."
"Because life in Haiti is dependent on hand to mouth survival," Hatt notes. "Mothers must return to work soon after giving birth and children [are] weaned off breast-feeding too quickly and given porridge that is high in carbohydrates and low in protein. This causes them to become malnourished from an early age," Hatt says.
This malnourishment is further complicated by poor access to potable water, which makes it more likely that children will pick up intestinal parasites and diarrheal diseases that further prevent the proper absorption of nutrients.
"Diarrhea is the second most common cause of death in Haiti," Hatt explains. And because malnourished children have weakened immune systems, pneumonia and intestinal tract infections often progress rapidly and are a major killer of children.
What the Future Holds for Haiti
But unlike AIDS, another major concern for doctors working with ICC, malnutrition is relatively simple to treat in the short term, Hatt says.
"After the introduction of Medika Mamba, we see improvement within days," says Keith Mumma, U.S.A. national director of ICC. After "a few days of good food and treatment, a child once thin [and] very lifeless is up playing with other children."
Since Hatt began working in Haiti with ICC nearly a decade ago, she says she has seen "the government in Haiti stabilize in recent years" and adds that "the pendulum could have been swinging toward improvement in overall health, [but] this horrible tragedy is going to put things way back."
"It's vital for food aid to come in," she says, noting that the long-term effects of chronic malnutrition can include developmental delays and permanent stunting in growth.
"If the amount of aid and interest can continue for years to come, I believe there is hope for Haiti to make a recovery -- the Haitian people are unbelievably strong, creative and resilient."
For more information or to donate to the What If? Foundation, check out their Web site.