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Survival on dirt cookies

Rising costs take food out of mouths in Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Associated Press
Published January 30, 2008


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud.

With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.

Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.

The mud has long been prized in Haiti by pregnant women and children as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like the slum of Cite Soleil, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.

Food prices around the world have spiked because of higher oil prices. Prices for basic ingredients such as corn and wheat are also up sharply, and the increasing global demand for biofuels is pressuring food markets as well.

The problem is particularly dire in the Caribbean, where island nations depend on imports and food prices are up 40 percent in places.

The global price hikes, together with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season, prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency to declare states of emergency in Haiti and several other Caribbean countries, and Caribbean leaders held an emergency summit on the matter in December.

At the market in the La Saline slum, even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. But the cookies, which sell at about 5 cents apiece, are a bargain compared to food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day, and a tiny elite controls the economy.

Merchants truck the dirt from the central town of Hinche to the La Saline market. Women buy the dirt, then process it into mud cookies to sell.

The women strain out rocks and clumps on a sheet and stir in shortening and salt. Then they pat the mixture into mud cookies and leave them to dry on a roof under the scorching sun.

The cookies have a smooth consistency and suck all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as they touch the tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingers.

Assessments of the health effects are mixed. Dirt can contain deadly parasites or toxins but can also strengthen the immunity of fetuses in the womb to certain diseases, said Gerald N. Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University who has studied geophagy, the scientific name for dirt-eating.

Haitian doctors say depending on the cookies for sustenance risks malnutrition.

"If I see someone eating those cookies, I will discourage it," said Dr. Gabriel Thimothee, executive director of the health ministry.

[Last modified January 30, 2008, 02:01:38]

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