Consuming even a simple meal twice daily in Haiti, not the affair of the vast majority of Haitians
By Trenton Daniel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Marie Bolivar, a gray-haired woman with a raspy voice, crushes peanuts into paste for sandwiches which she sells by the roadside for 12 cents apiece. These days the paste is thinner, because the price of peanuts has jumped by 80 percent.
But Bolivar, 60, says she still has trouble feeding her four children and paying the rent. "I can't survive like this," she said on a recent afternoon as she piled freshly crushed peanuts on a small plastic tray.
Soaring food prices aren't new in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and heavily dependent on imports. Now those prices are rising again, mirroring global trends, while the cost of gasoline has doubled to $5 a gallon. Haitians are paying more for basic staples than much of Latin America and the Caribbean, an Associated Press survey finds.
More than half of Haiti's 10 million people get by on less than $2 a day and hundreds of thousands are dependent on handouts. Undernourished children are easy to spot by the orange tinge in their hair. "Haitians have less room to increase their expenditures on their food," said Myrta Kaulard, Haiti's country director for the U.N. World Food Program. "This is a serious concern."
It's ironic to hear Bolivar say "Everything was much easier a year ago," when a year ago Haiti had just endured a quake that killed 300,000 people. What she means is that food was much cheaper then because of the emergency supplies being rushed in.
But as the aid operation scales back and the market reasserts itself, prices are soaring again.
One bit of good news has been the price of rice, Haiti's staple food. Pushed down by the free food being shipped in after the earthquake, it fell to $0.92 a kilogram in September, climbed to $1.38 in January and then began to fall, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Incomes haven't risen, however. The minimum wage is $5 a day but most Haitians don't have a job that would pay them that minimum.
Nature and the outside world have all taken their toll. Erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms make farming difficult. American imports are stiff competition for farmers. Haiti imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice. A whole chicken costs $8 in Haiti — double the price in Peru.
The winding down of quake aid is meant in part to encourage quake survivors to leave their camps and to stabilize market prices. Groups such as the WFP have launched cash-for-work programs, school meals to ensure attendance, and efforts to get aid workers to purchase goods locally.
But for Bolivar, it's the cost of living that overshadows everything. She says she usually eats just once a day.
Bolivar said she hopes things will get better under Michel Martelly, the musician elected president on March 20. "We're waiting for all the promises he made," Bolivar said. "People want commercial activity. People want jobs. People want to eat."