I had heard about hungry Haitian children eating mud cookies to fill their empty bellies but I had never actually seen mud cookies with my own eyes — until I traveled to the slums of Ouanaminthe, located on Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic.
I was on a mission trip, walking the streets in this desperately poor community, when I suddenly encountered a street vendor selling the infamous brown discs made of salt, shortening and dirt. Her cookies, baking under the scorching Caribbean sun, looked ordinary enough, but the reality of what they were hit me hard.
According to my friend and colleague, Zach Oles, Cross Catholic Outreach’s Haiti Project Manager, mud cookie recipes are actually passed down from generations, and mothers and grandmothers spend hours making them. They are found all over Haiti – but they are particularly common in areas where food and money are very scarce. The kids seem have grown used to eating them, but they are hard to swallow and even harder to digest.
Zach is passionate in his disdain for the practice. The fact mud cookies exist at all is a human failure, he says.
“Food security is such an issue,” he says. “But there must be, and there are, better ways to address hunger than eating dirt. The Church needs to do more to discourage longstanding practices like this.”
Thankfully, we have incredible Catholic partners in Haiti who are doing what they can to help. I saw examples of this on a visit to the Marie Louise Bayle Center in Ouanaminthe, run by the Apostolic Sisters of Mary Immaculate. I had the privilege of visiting Sr. Yolande and the Mary Immaculate sisters for a few days, and I was particularly impressed by their program to combat malnutrition. Their school feeding program has literally saved lives. They also hold classes for moms and caregivers on nutrition that have transformed the way families feed their children. As we toured the slums, I saw them preach against the “bonbon tè,” the Creole name universally given to the cookies throughout Haiti. They are working hard to change perceptions, but it’s definitely an uphill battle. Mothers with desperately hungry children, they realize, simply have few other choices.
On the same trip, we traveled to Kobonal, in central Haiti, and asked the mission’s director, Bernard Philo-Jacques, to take us to one of the country’s largest mud cookie manufacturing facilities, which happened to be located nearby. When we arrived, we were told they had sold out. Just that morning, hundreds of cookies had been piled up, ready for transport. Now they were gone. I turned to Zach Oles and asked, “Are they really that popular?” Sadly, he shook his head, and we departed in silence.
In that moment, Proverbs 3:5 popped into my head. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” I thought again about those incredible nuns in Ouanaminthe, changing perceptions one child at a time, and my melancholy lifted as I considered new ways to empower them in their vital work.