Why This Building Matters: Part One

From Meds & Food for Kids' Founder & Senior Advisor, Dr. Pat Wolff
October 25, 2022

On this 10th anniversary of the opening of Meds & Food for Kids’ (MFK) factory in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, I am feeling overwhelmed by the enormous donations of time, skills and money from hundreds of people. This is my story of the winding pathway, with a few wrong turns, that led to the successful completion of the factory in Quartier Morin, Haiti.  I fear I may have failed to mention people who were so important.  Please contact me and jog my memory!

Part 1 of 2

First, there was a person with a grinder on the street in Cap-Haitien. Dumel Louis, MFK’s General Manager, and I brought powdered milk, sugar, oil and peanuts to him and he ground them up and put the mixture in a 5-gallon bucket.  This was not a reliably “safe food” methodology so we redoubled our efforts to get our own mechanical grinder.

After making 20 phones calls to somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, we were able to buy a hand grinder from Compatible Technologies, Inc. (CTI) in St. Paul, MN. CTI, a non-profit group whose mission was to invent low-tech food processing machines for low-tech countries. They insisted that I come to St. Paul to take the grinder apart, clean it and put it together again. They were not having any failures on their watch. I left with the grinder in my luggage.

After attorney Howard Smotkin successfully created the non-profit Meds & Food for Kids, with the help of Judge Duane Benton, we were able to receive a $11,700 International Rotary grant for the grinder, the raw materials for 100 Kg of Medika Mamba and salaries for 1-2 days of hand grinding a month for the first year.

The Cap-Haitien Methodist Church gave us a schoolroom to use for a few months.  At the Tovar village church clinic we took a week’s worth of therapeutic Medika Mamba out of a 5 gallon bucket and put it into recycled yogurt containers from the US, and provided instructions for the caretakers to give the children  an appropriate for weight number of tablespoons of Medika Mamba, eight times per day washed down with three ounces of clean water.  We also gave the child a daily children’s chewable vitamin and instructions to bring the child back to clinic in one week. If the child was very ill, we might ask them to come back in two days or send them to the hospital. However, in the beginning, the hospitals had nothing to give the children.  

Soon though, the MFK protocol for treating malnutrition was adopted as the national malnutrition protocol, thanks to thesupport of Dr. Joseline Marhone Pierre, the head of nutrition for the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population.

We moved to an affordable area in the middle of Cap-Haitien. CTI’s Don Moran helped us experiment with a giant solar oven for roasting peanuts.  Even on a very clear day, we could not keep the temperature up high enough to kill salmonella.  We reverted to squatting over a charcoal  a grill.

Larry Carpenter visited to add a bicycle wheel to the grinder. Then he experimented with adding a motor to the grinder, which only worked if there was electricity, a rare event. Therefore, MFK purchased a counterfeit Honda generator and dealt with the noise and the repeated breakdowns. There was a shared contaminated well on this location and poor rat control. We soon moved again to a newly built house in the Cap-Haitien suburbs. This house was clean and rat-free but had water only briefly, from the mountaintop. We treated this water with chlorine and used it regularly until a dispute, at the top of the mountain caused the water to be shut off. It was not possible to have a “factory” with no water.  

In this period Lori Dowd and Ben Kaplan, St Louis filmmakers, arrived to create MFK’s first video.

When Washington University student, Tom Stehl, along with two other students wrote MFK’s first business plan and presented it to the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the Olin School of Business, MFK won the social entrepreneurship award that year. After graduation, Tom became MFK’s Deputy Executive Director and first employee.

Tom wrote a proposal to The World Bank’s Development Marketplace, winning a very competitive  three-year grant to bring Medika Mamba treatment to the Ministry of Health hospital in northern Haiti.

Early on MFK became aware of aflatoxin contamination in Haitian peanuts. Professor Dan Brown, toxicologist at Cornell University, introduced MFK to a simple peanut aflatoxin test using 85% alcohol.  Professor Dan returned many times over the years to address the high aflatoxin levels in many of the foods eaten by Haitians. His graduate student, Jeremy Schwartzbord, did his thesis on this public health issue. A seven-year grant from USAID supported a peanut development program and MFK’s collaboration with these two Cornell toxicologists and University of Georgia, the University of Florida, and Oklahoma State University.

The grants supported biannual trips to Haiti to support and improve MFK’s mentorship of peanut farmers, and appropriate techniques to dry, store, sort, and roast peanuts.

Jamie Rhoads was MFK’s peanut expert and coordinator for the USAID consultants  who visited Haitian peanut farmers, and offered essential advice about aflatoxin abatement, seeds, varieties, storage, deshelling, pest management, hazardous chemical storage, etc.

[USAID folks who were all of great help were: Bob Kemerait, Tim Brenneman, Abraham Fulmer, Greg MacDonald, Jay Williams, John Damicone, Chad Godsey, Barry Tillman, and Chris Butt.]

This work resulted in a 10-fold decline in aflatoxin in peanut samples in the markets and, presumably, a 10-fold decline in exposure for the public over 10 years.

These also resulted in better peanut sorting, drying, storage, and more drought and insect resistant peanut varieties. Farmers’ crops and their incomes improved.  Their children, previously in MFK malnutrition programs, were healthy, and able to attend school.

MFK had created the most comprehensive and professional aflatoxin abatement program in Haiti. Jamie Rhoads led this effort of finding grants and people and pairing them with the needs of smallholder Haitian farmers. As a result, MFK won an international award in the Netherlands for its Creole peanut aflatoxin instruction manual and was invited to create a version to be used globally.

Jamie also introduced Frank and Lorna Nolin to MFK who, in turn, designed, manufactured and installed almost every piece of MFK’s peanut processing equipment.  They made many trips to Haiti to create and install the not-yet-in-existence anywhere machinery for our small industrial facility.

Frank continued to innovate and his equipment has subsequently is now in use in eight countries.

Next MFK rented another newly built house. Nutriset’s quality assurance emissary, Mary Pierre, was in Cap-Haitien evaluating MFK as afranchisee of Nutriset at the same time.

She was very helpful in showing MFK team how to adapt the house into a food-safe factory. Meanwhile, we needed to upgrade our hand deshelling of peanuts and still needed an efficient roaster. Jock Brandis, from The Full Belly Project, presented many ideas, which we adapted for deshelling and for sorting the good peanuts from the bad.

Next Steps

In January of 2009, MFK convened engineers from General Mills in Minneapolis, Monsanto, Clayco Inc. and Burns & McDonnell in St. Louis. This group met with an agenda to improve MFK’s machinery and make initial plans for a simple industrial facility.

[Among the technical people offering their expertise was Jim Shelton, Dave Harmann, Seth Wiseman, George Farrell, Larry Carpenter, Robin Shepard, Cory Flanagin, Don Pearson, Gary Brandenburger, Gene Tucker, and George Ewing.]

Much progress was made. Preliminary plans were drawn up for a primitive industrial facility and the hunt for a suitable and affordable site in Cap-Haitien began.

Tragedy struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in the south, killing 2-300,000 people. After the earthquake, everything about Haiti became both more difficult and easier in some ways.

An elusive partnership with UNICEF became a possibility if MFK would collaborate with Nutriset, France, for quality assurance. Nutriset, which had been reluctant to get involved in Haiti, offered a PlumpyField Network membership to MFK and away forward with relatively simple industrialization of our production process. Now we needed a real factory.

In the meantime, we needed to upgrade the electricity at the rented house in order to install the Optinut mixer/grinder from Nutriset.

Thankfully, electrical engineer, Jim Sylivant, rewired the house to meet our needs and to meet US Code. He also created an electrical mechanical test in French that was given to 100 students at three technical schools in Cap-Haitien to help identify qualified technicians to manage the new computerized machinery coming from Nutriset France.

Only two students and one teacher passed the test! MFK hired the two students, Phito Florestal and Orelien Legrand, who are still with MFK today. Nutriset invited Phito to France for six weeks to learn how to operate the equipment.

Read Part 2