Note: This feature story originally was published in the September-October 2002 issue of New World Outlook, pp. 14-17. Today's School Hot Lunch Program provides meals at 93 schools and reaches 16,877 youngsters. The program is so important to children's health and nutrition that the Methodist Church of Haiti continues it in the summer through Vacation Bible Schools. The hot lunch ministry needs some $480,000 per year but only $223,815 was raised in 2003, Given the current emergency in Haiti and the shortfall of contributions last year, support of UMCOR Advance #418790 is even more crucial.
Walking from his small farm to the coastal town of Jeremie on the island of Hispaniola has been a regular routine for Mesye Walter Etienne. His farm is located near Gommiers, a small village on the northwest coast of the Gulf of Gonave. The farm consists of an acre of rocky land on the barren slope of a steep mountain. Etienne has worked his stony field with a machete and a short-handed hoe (hove) all his life. He can remember the days when farm women carried large bundles of produce on their heads to market. But times have become very difficult. Today he has no vegetables or other garden produce to sell or trade. He walks almost alone.
Jeremie, about 250 miles northwest of Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince, is referred to as the "poet's town" because several famous Haitian poets made this remote ocean town their home. The nation's most famous poet, Etzer Vllaire, a former Methodist lay pastor, is remembered as one of Jeremie's favorite sons. When Etienne reaches Jeremie, he will meet with other farmers and friends to talk about the devastating drought that has come upon Haiti. The people have experienced droughts before, but this year's is the worst in memory. As the men talk, Etienne repeats the standard comment, Nap tan sa Bondye ap fe pou nou. (We will wait for what God does for us ). Another farmer replies, Wi, nou sou kont Bondye. (Yes, we will rely on God.)
Etienne is the father of five children. With his wife, Solange, he has done his very best to care for the family. While he is in Jeremie, he will visit his 11-year-old daughter, Nicole Jeune. She is living with her older brother while attending John Wesley Elementary School, where she is in the fourth grade. Her father is proud of her academic achievements and thankful that she is able to attend a Methodist school. Two younger children attend the Methodist school in Gommiers.
Haiti, about the size of the state of Massachusetts, occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic occupies the remainder. With an estimated population of over 8 million, Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is estimated that between 65 and 75 percent of the land in Haiti is suffering from desertification. Cutting down the mountain forests to sell and the resulting loss of topsoil in erosion have changed the once tropical country into an arid, barren, hostile land. Once an island paradise, Haiti today is an ecological disaster.
The Église Methodiste de Haiti (Methodist Church of Haiti) is a district within the Methodist Churches in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA). The Haiti District has seven circuits and 105 schools with an enrollment of 20,000 students. The schools offer a centralized curriculum.
The Jeremie circuit includes 34 Methodist churches and 33 related schools. The total enrollment in these schools is about 6000 students. The circuit is under the leadership of the Rev. Ralph Denizard, circuit superintendent, with seven local pastors and 90 local preachers.
The cost of educating a child in Haiti is higher than anywhere else in the world, considering school expenses in relation to the nation's average family income of $250.00 to $300.00. Tuition is about $10.00 a quarter in most rural schools. Uniforms, shoes, books, and supplies cost extra. Educating children is a big sacrifice for Haitians. It is a sacrifice that Mesye Walter and Solange Etienne are most willing to make. Etienne can remember when he earned about 150 Haitian dollars (US $30.00) a month, but that was before the drought and the high inflation rate.
Of the 20,000 students in Methodist schools in Haiti, it is estimated that more than 17,000 are at serious risk from illnesses related to malnutrition. Consequently, the Methodist Church of Haiti, with the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, started a hot-lunch program to provide nutritious hot meals every morning for the children in Methodist schools.
Etienne is aware of the meaning of the popular phrase, Sak vid pa kanpe, (An empty sack cannot stand), or a hungry child cannot learn. Before the hot-lunch program was started, it was a common practice for children to fall asleep at their desks. Most children have to leave home very early in the morning, without breakfast, for the long walk to school. The hot meal at school is most often the only daily meal a child receives. The hot-lunch program has created an increase in school attendance with fewer absences owing to illness, and individual school test scores have risen. Teachers and principals explain that the school hot-lunch program is "necessary for the survival" of the children. They stress the success of the program and the importance of its continuation. Nicole Jeune Etienne says that her father "thanks God every day for the schools that provide a hot meal for my children."
In the small rural school in Gommiers, the children eat a bowl of rice and beans with mixed vegetables and a small piece of meat. Many eat only half of it and store what is left in a plastic container to take home after school. The saved food is for younger brothers and sisters at home, who may not have anything else to eat.
At the school in Despange, the hot-lunch program generates some additional income for the area. The school's parents' committee and the principal have encouraged the purchase of local produce as much as possible. Farmers sell their food products at reasonable prices to the school. With the profits made from these sales, they can pay the tuition for their children.
On the island of LaGonave, located between Hispaniola and the southern coast of Cuba, is a Methodist circuit with 18 churches and 10 schools with 1607 students. The Rev. Lebrun Corsaire, the island's circuit superintendent, ministers with 40 local preachers to 80,000 people there. The island has very little drinking water, no electricity, and no paved roads; the harsh, steep mountain terrain makes the island the poorest area of Haiti. Corsaire says that very little of the land can be used for agriculture, making fishing the people's main livelihood. He notes that because of poverty, the children in the schools depend completely on the hot-lunch program that is provided in all the Methodist schools.
In many schools, the hot-lunch program is also a feeding program for the teachers, since their salaries are often several months late.
The hot-lunch program has had a social and economic impact on local communities. In many areas, not only is food purchased locally, but the program provides employment for the cooks and kitchen helpers. In some schools, parents volunteer to prepare the food and, in turn, receive food that can be taken home to feed their families. It is always sad to see children standing outside the compound waiting for something to eat. Usually, they are the brothers and sisters of students, and after a brief time you notice the school children passing food over the fenced-in area to their younger siblings. The program expands in each community to meet the needs of children and encourages participation by community members. Parents and the others in the community make decisions regarding their schools. Many families pay for the meals their children receive with a donation of a Haitian gourde, about US 4 cents. It is estimated that the cost per meal is US 25 cents, but this small amount makes a dynamic impact on the economy of the community.
Health education is important because in Haiti one child can influence five other children. Therefore, the Methodist school curriculum provides a health program that teaches basic matters of hygiene, such as the use of latrines, washing hands, boiling water, and preventive care for injuries. In a country with a very high rate of infant mortality (dysentery is the number-one killer), teaching a simple oral rehydration treatment is saving many lives. Schools provided with Medicine Boxes have given emergency and preventive treatment to students. The combination of providing nutritious meals and teaching basic health is enabling and equipping members of a school community to serve and care for one another.
Working in partnership with Haiti, The United Methodist church has created local partnerships with the churches, schools, and communities in Haiti. For example, the Michigan Area (Detroit and West Michigan conferences ) has entered into a mission partnership covenant with the Methodist church in Haiti. The schoolchildren at Baudonin School, during morning prayers, give thanks to God for their friends in Michigan.
In addition to raising over $100,000 earn year to assist the schools, Michigan United Methodists have also been active in sending United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) and mission-encounter teams to Haiti. Both conferences have sent on a regular basis containers filled with school kits, health kits, and other needed items requested by the Haitian church. The school kits provide supplies for the children and teachers, while the health kits are vital in teaching hygiene. The items are collected from congregations and brought to the annual conference office for shipment.
These projects have also been a blessing for those who provide the kits, giving them a sense of personal involvement in the well-being of the Haitian children. Several UMVIM teams have taken school kits to a church or school where they were working. Recently a team of youth workers from Boyne City, Michigan, went to the Cabaret School, about an hour's drive from Port-au-Prince. They built a kitchen for the school hot-lunch program. They also took more than 300 school kits and a variety of supplies and teaching aids for the teachers.
The community of Furcey, located high on top of a mountain in the Port-au-Prince circuit, is almost impossible to ream even in four-wheel-drive bucks. Along with the hot-lunch program, the Furcey school of more than 300 students has a tree nursery and an agricultural program, a clinic, and a church. A small shelter near the school serves as the kitchen, where three large kettles rest on stones. Charcoal fires boil rice and beans, which the women continually stir with large wooden paddles. A misunderstanding about the funds for the program meant that the women worked in the school kitchen for five months without pay because the funds were being used only for the purchase of food. When the problem was cleared up and the women were told that they would also be paid from this fund, they began to sing Mesi Bondye! (Thank God!) They danced around the kettles waving their paddles in the air. They had remained faithful to their task because they felt that feeding the children was their vital responsibility in this remote village.
Elsewhere, in the community of Hyacinthe, a sorghum mill provided by UMCOR has allowed the farmers to mill their own harvest. They are now able to control the price they receive at market. They can also provide flour to help feed their families. The school's hot-lunch program is enabling the children to receive a nutritious meal and an education in their local community. This is an exciting example of how the ministry of UMCOR, in cooperation with local community leaders, helps isolated communities become self-supporting.While Etienne walks home to his village, he is thankful for what God is doing even during a time of severe drought. The schools are open, the children are fed, and when it rains he will again go to market with garden produce to sell. He knows his daughter, Nicole Jeune, is in a good school, that she is not hungry, and that she will have a future even when it does not rain.
The Rev. R. Paul Doherty is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Dowagiac, Michigan, and chair of the Michigan Area Haiti Task Force. He thanks Haitian pastors Raphael Dessieu, Ralph Denizard, and Lebrun Cosaire for contributions.
You can donate to this UMCOR-supported project by placing a contribution designated for "School Hot Lunch Program, Advance #418790" in the offering plate at a local United Methodist church; by sending a check to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115; or by calling 1-800-554-8583, where credit card donations are accepted.