Kristina DeMuth is a dietitian with a mission. She has been a volunteer in Haiti for a little over two years with an organization called Healing Haiti. For the past eight months, Kristina has been living in Haiti part-time working, teaching, and educating the local community about nutrition.
Kristina’s main focus is on nutrition solutions to end hunger and diet-related diseases at an orphanage just outside Port-au-Prince. There, she designs meal plans, leads a staﬀ of cooks in providing healthy food to the community, provides nutrition education, and more. During her spare time, Kristina works on her blog, “For I was Hungry” which shares about her day to day experiences.
Did we mention that she’s only 24?
Kristina contacted Oldways about using our African Heritage & Health materials to help the Haitian population revive their healthy plant-based traditions and native foods. We caught up with her and her colleague, Lynoue, Director at The Feeding Center, to hear about their work this year and how the message of health through heritage is resonating in Haiti.
OLDWAYS: Thank you both for speaking with us today. You are inspirations to us all here at Oldways. What was the spark that ﬁrst got you interested in nutrition?
KRISTINA: I enjoyed making my own creations in the kitchen, modifying recipes, and playing with diﬀerent food ingredients to make tasty dishes. Growing-up, these activities were mere “games” as they would become the menu items for the “restaurant” I would set up in my parents’ dining room. Throughout my middle-school years, I became very intrigued by the relationship between nutrition and the body. Nutrition remained an underlying component to many life journeys I have taken. Receiving accurate educational information about nutrition, food components, and the connection between food and the body really helped me to understand the important role food has for individuals’ quality of life.
LYNOUE: I have watched thousands of sick people who need help for the things they don’t know. I wondered how I could advance my community. I met my friend, Kristina, and she taught me about nutrition. What I learn and say here at our orphanage, I can take to help other people to feed their families, and to give direction to others for more normal and proper nutrition.
OLDWAYS: And what brought you into the international fold, Kristina? How did you end up in Haiti?
KRISTINA: During my senior year of college, one of my aunts unexpectedly invited me on a mission trip to Haiti. I was intending to travel to Haiti at some point, since many family members are engaged in the mission founded by my uncle, Jeﬀery Gacek, and aunt, Alyn Shanon. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go on this week long trip. While in Haiti, I witnessed, ﬁrsthand, poverty like I have never seen before. I played with children that had gaunt faces and yellow eyes, were covered in disease, and had extended bellies from parasites and/or malnutrition. These nutrition-related symptoms were things I had only seen in textbooks and lectures at school.
After returning home from Haiti, I came across a diary entry I had written when I was younger about going to third-world countries to give people the tools to help themselves overcome poverty, disease, and malnutrition. It was at that moment that I knew my life’s mission was to dive deep into the poorest countries of the world to bring life through good dietary intake.
In the fall of 2011, my nutritional work in Haiti took root. I was asked by Healing Haiti to look into nutritional supplements for the children that would soon be moving into the orphanage called Grace Village. I performed assessments on the children, and started many of the children on Medika Mamba, a peanut-based supplement produced in Haiti.
My role as a dietitian in Haiti has continued to change and evolve over the past year. In the initial stages, I spent most of my time doing basic nutrition-assessments, documenting growth on the World Health Organization growth charts and helping kids over-come malnutrition. Now that our children are growing and developing well, I spend most of my time doing community-level work—- researching the roots of the nutritional problems that exist in developing countries; educating the population I serve about balanced, plant-focused diets; experimenting with local foods and researching their nutritional qualities; making frequent visits to the local market to purchase produce and talk with the people about nutrition; and communicating with diﬀerent agricultural organizations and my staﬀ about the vast number of edible plants and plant parts that are available in Haiti.
Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to work one-on-one with community members to talk to them about food culture in Haiti, and to educate them about nutrition. I have also had the opportunity to shadow a well-educated, Haitian man who teaches about good health and nutrition at a clinic on the border of Cite Soleil, the poorest slum in Haiti. Many people that come to the clinic have chronic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. I have been working with my new Haitian friend to continue advancing his nutrition-related knowledge and counseling skills/ educational skills. He is now using Oldways African Heritage resources as a way to show the clients how familiar foods should ﬁt into their daily dietary intake. Recently, I was accepted into the University of Minnesota School of Public Health for Nutrition, and am looking forward to acquiring skills to continue advancing the dietary patterns and prevention of nutrition-related diseases in developing nations.
OLDWAYS: Can you tell us a little bit about the organization, Healing Haiti, and about your team there?
KRISTINA: Healing Haiti is a non-proﬁt, 503 (c), organization that was founded in 2006 by Alyn Shanon and Jeﬀery Gacek. The organization has several
The kitchen never sleeps. There are seven Haitian women that run the kitchen from 5 AM until 8 PM everyday. Additional staﬀ come
s to help prepare sandwiches for the school program. The kitchen staﬀ has been busy learning and acquiring new skills with food. They have come a long ways since the ﬁrst day I started working with them. We are down to the
“little” things in the kitchen, such as reducing the amount of salt used and increasing use of fresh herbs/spices/ aromas for cooking.
In regards to our team, LYNOUE says: Before, they were ignorant. Sorry for the expression, but it is true. They used to cook food for the children with useless ingredients—foods that are not good for health. We spent a lot of money on these ingredients. When we changed the way we cooked and the foods we made, the children and staﬀ did not agree with me. However, I have learned to teach with more love and patience, and now they agree with me. I think they are doing well!
OLDWAYS: We all know about the industrialized, “standard American diet” eating patterns that continue to spread across the globe. Oldways works hard at reviving, as well as preserving, cultural culinary traditions from around the world. What is the nutrition-transition climate in Haiti? Have people in Haiti held onto the traditional diet and cuisines there, or have they shifted signiﬁcantly? If so, how have they changed?
KRISTINA: I will respond to this question based on observation and research, but will allow Lynoue to share her insights on the nutrition-transition from the Haitian perspective. When I ﬁrst started working directly with the Feeding Center in June of 2012, I was amazed by the lack of produce used in the meals. The meals frequently served at the feeding center included rice with little meat and little and/or no beans, mounds of spaghetti lathered in oil and butter with a dash of ketchup, and occasionally pieces of hot dogs. They frequently had overly sweetened juice, and porridges that were made of ﬂour, and sweetened condensed milk with lots of sugar. Sometimes the kids would have soups for lunch, but they were loaded with high amounts of butter and oil.
When driving into Port-au-Prince, you see vendor after vendor selling rice, fried food, sugar loaded pop and juices, chips, candy, and packets of salt-seasonings (ie. “Maggi” –chicken bouillon packet that is basically just salt, MSG, sugar, vegetable and animal fat, and imitations of real ﬂavor. People here love it). I was amazed by how much produce I would see in the local air-markets, but how little of it ended up in the feeding center at our orphanage. After communicating with a few other orphanages across Haiti, I have learned that these dietary patterns of minimal fruits and vegetables, and high amounts of reﬁned carbohydrates, and processed foods are frequently consumed by many other Haitian children, and not just our own.
Over the past few weeks, I have sat down with the younger generation of Haitian’s that work at our village to dive-deeper into the nutrition-transition problem occurring in Haiti. When I ask them about food here, they tell me “Haitian’s just do what they know they like.” And that if you ask anyone what is “Haitian food” they will tell you, “rice, beans, and chicken.” I continue to press-on to ask about what their grandparents eat, and I often get this response, “ My grandparents don’t eat a lot of rice” and “they don’t cook with Maggi.” They list of whole grains like sorghum (here called pitimi), yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, tubers, fruits, and vegetables. Another Haitian friend has told me that people without a lot of money typically just eat meat on Sundays with rice and beans, while the wealthier people will have meat everyday. When I have asked several people in the Port-au-Prince, the capital, if they know how to make some of the traditional foods we serve now at our feeding center, most of them don’t know how. I have been informed that people in the countryside, as well as the older generations have retained more of the traditional Haitian eating patterns.
LYNOUE: When the Haitian people tell you special foods they eat, they only talk about rice, beans, and meat. When you ask them why they only cook rice and beans, they will tell you that they love it. When I ask them about the ingredients the use for cooking, they list things like: Maggi, lots of oil, and butter. We spend a lot of money on all these ingredients, and in large amounts they are not good for the health. People like fast food— fried banana and fried pate. They claim they don’t like Haitian cultural food such as sorghum (pitimi in creole), cornmeal, and tchaka. God provided for me and put me in a good organization where I have been able to learn a lot about the nutrition. I know what I should eat, as well as what my family and my country need for good health. I can teach it too!
OLDWAYS: What do think are the strongest traits, nutritionally, of the traditional eating patterns and foods of Haiti?
KRISTINA: I am discovering that the native foods of Haiti are rich in a vast arrange of micronutrients; vitamins and minerals that are limited in the new “Haitian diet.” The root of Haitian tradition is rich in plant-based foods; foods with roots, leafy tops, and vibrant colors. When I ﬁrst came across the Oldways’ African Pyramid, I amazed how in synch the pyramid was to the changes we were working on establishing at the Feeding Center. The base of the pyramids are foods we try to spend most of our monthly budget on, where as the top of the pyramid such as ﬁsh (a few times per week) and meat/poultry maybe used 1-2 a month (if at all).
OLDWAYS: Does the message of health-through-heritage and culinary tradition resonate with people there?
KRISTINA: Yes, the message of health-through-heritage does resonate with the people here! I see people become so intrigued when they stop to think about the nutrition transition and the Africa-diaspora. When I ask individuals about the foods their grandparents and great grandparents used to eat, they get so excited to tell me the message I already know. Their grandparents eat like the African Heritage Diet Pyramid; they eat like the children at our
I have also had the opportunity to provide nutrition education with many people at a clinic in Cite Soleil. We have been using the African Heritage ﬂyers, posters, and pyramids as a resource tool for the people to visually see how their dietary patterns should resemble. It is exciting to see people engaged with the message and the pictures; the familiar foods pictured on the handouts and pyramids helps the individuals to identify to their markets and their traditional eating patterns. The message resonates with the older population, especially. I won’t ever forget the conversation I had with an older lady who had chronic health problems and was eating like the current accepted Haitian food-trends. After a fairly long conversation about diﬀerent foods she should be eating more of and consuming less of, she said to me in Creole, “ When I was little, we never used Maggi.” She continued to talk about a few of the things she grew-up on. It’s moments like this that you can see the change in an individual, that they are getting the message and remembering their roots.
OLDWAYS: Have you discovered any new, traditional Caribbean foods or dishes in your travels?
KRISTINA: I have several favorite traditional dishes in Haiti! One of my favorites is Tchaka. It is a squash and coconut milk based soup with beans, corn (that taste like beans), and a variety of vegetables (cabbage, onions, peppers). I also enjoy pumpkin soup (soup joumoun), which is also a squash-based soup that uses tubers, carrots, cabbage, and homemade dumplings. At our orphanage, we also prepare bulgur and black beans with a mixed vegetable
LYNOUE: I like things like tchaka [a similar dish to polenta], pumpkin soup, bulgur (in Haiti we call it ble), as well as our two new creations: veggie burgers and crispy millet.
Lynoue and the kitchen staﬀ have been busy experimenting with the native foods. They make things such as: coconut chili, coconut sorghum with a side of lightly-stir ﬁred plantains and carrots, beets and camyote, potatoes, and sorghum soup. We have also made things like salsa with mango, black beans, tomatoes, and onions—this was a new experience for many of the children and the staﬀ.
OLDWAYS: Do either of you have a favorite regional recipe you’re willing to share?
Yes! The joy of making soup in Haiti is that there isn’t really a set of exact instructions. The staﬀ basically just uses a mix of ingredients and modiﬁes the consistency and ﬂavor of the soup as they cook. The recipe below should be enough for about 6 people.
1 squash (butternut squash or winter squash)
6 small potatoes, peeled and cubed or cut in half*
2-4 carrots, peeled and chopped*
1 small head of cabbage, roughly chopped
1 turnip, peeled and chopped
3 green peppers, chopped
3 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
3 sprigs of fresh cilantro, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
12 small sea scallops or 6 large bay scallops
*Potatoes: In Haiti they use a variety of potatoes and tubers in the soup such as: camote (a white sweet potatoes), taro root, malanga root, yukan gold potatoes, etc. Use any kind of potato you prefer! Some variations of the soup use spaghetti or pasta noodles in the soup. Some variations also add some lime juice. The beauty of soup is that there isn’t just one right way of making it.
Cut squash in half and boil in water until a fork is able to break through the ﬂesh of the squash.
Cut and peel the potatoes and the carrots while the squash is boiling. Chop the cabbage.
When the squash is fully cooked, scoop out the inside of the squash. (For added nutritional beneﬁts like protein, ﬁber, and heart-healthy fats, keep the squash seeds). Blend the squash (and seeds) in a blender with water until smooth. It helps to blend the squash with water in small batches.
Once blended, pour the liqueﬁed-squash into a large pot.
Add additional water as needed (this is where you can decide how thick or thin you prefer your soup!).
Put the rest of the ingredients in the pot and cook on medium-heat for about an hour (or until the noodles, potatoes, vegetables and scallops are cooked to taste preference).