On paper, sending surplus U.S. peanuts to feed 140,000 malnourished Haitian schoolchildren for a full year sounds like a heroic plan. Instead, it's united 60 aid groups that are urgently calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt a shipment containing 500 metric tons of peanuts, preventing the legumes from reaching Haiti.
The aid groups call it "crop dumping" and warn that it will deliver an economic blow to struggling Haitian peanut farmers. Critics say it's poor aid policy that will have long-term negative impacts on Haitian communities.
"This is a country where peanut production is a huge source of livelihood for up to a half-million people, especially women, if you include the supply chains that process the peanuts," says Claire Gilbert, spokesperson for Grassroots International, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports food sovereignty.
How the USDA got stuck with a pile of peanuts stretches back to the 2014 Farm Bill, which included incentives encouraging American farmers to plant more. It worked. In 2015, growers harvested 6.2 billion pounds of peanuts, and that number is expected to go up another 20 to 25 percent this year. But all that extra planting has left the USDA holding the bag, with a hefty peanut surplus.
To unload some of the excess, the agency announced a few weeks ago that it would ship 500 metric tons of packaged, dry-roasted peanuts to schoolchildren in Haiti as part of the "Stocks for Food" program, a joint initiative between the Farm Service Agency, Foreign Agricultural Services and Food and Nutrition Services.
A statement issued from the aid group Partners in Health did not mince words about the announcement: "We believe this is wrong."
The well-known aid group has been working on health and nutrition issues in Haiti for more than 30 years, including a partnership with Abbott Laboratories to manufacture and distribute a product called Nourimanba used to treat severely malnourished children.
"We're not talking about big business owners being put at risk by an input of peanuts," says Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy adviser, Partners in Health. "We're talking about small, very poor farmers that are very dependent on a single crop. We really believe the dumping, or donation, whatever your perspective, will have negative consequences."
The nonprofit groups aren't the only ones less than excited at the potential USDA donation. While the U.S. Agency for International Development declined to comment, a tweet from its Haitian office did not seem to support USDA's peanut plan.
Calls and emails to the USDA and the department's Foreign Agricultural Service seeking further information on the shipment of peanuts were not returned. In a Washington Post Letter to the Editor, Alexis Taylor, deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services at the USDA, says the peanuts will be part of a morning snack, and that donated U.S. bulgur wheat, green peas and vegetable oil are also part of hot meals currently distributed at Haitian schools.
"To ensure this aid complements ongoing development assistance, the USDA is funding research by the World Food Program into the use of locally procured peanuts in emergency rations and in school food programs in Haiti," Taylor writes.
Mark Schuller, author of Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid and NGOs, and an associate professor at Northern Illinois University,says it's a classic case of institutional silo mentality.
"The USDA is doing what they've always done, which is to promote agri business. It wouldn't have occurred to them that this is a problem," he says.
It's not the first time U.S. ag policies have interfered with Haiti's food security. In the 1990s the Haitian market was flooded with U.S. rice, putting many small farmers out of business. To survive, many were forced to move to overcrowded Port-au-Prince, which was later devastated by the 2010 earthquake. Likewise, many worry that opening Haiti to U.S. peanut surpluses, even for humanitarian reasons, could have harmful and long-lasting ripple effects.
"Even one shock can have devastating consequences and can impact the long-term economic viability of families," says Ivers.
The importance of protecting Haiti's peanut crop cannot be overstated, says Gilbert.
"Haiti is in its third year of drought, but peanuts are a crop that is drought resistant, which makes this even more important," says Gilbert. "When other crops fail, peanuts are what they're literally relying on to survive."
UPDATE: After our story was published, USDA press secretary Catherine Cochran sent an email response. It reads, in part:
"We recently donated the 500 metric tons of peanuts to Haiti in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and in coordination with the Haitian government. The donated peanuts will be used as morning snacks in USDA/WFP school feeding programs in vulnerable areas of Haiti where malnutrition is high. Before donating the peanuts, USDA worked with WFP to develop a distribution program to ensure that the donation would not negatively affect Haiti's domestic peanut market. To prevent leakage of the product into the marketplace, the peanuts are in individual bags (28 grams apiece), they are to be consumed at school only, and we are designing a strong monitoring and evaluation program with the WFP to ensure the peanuts benefit the kids who need them. Nearly a third of Haitian children suffer from stunting, and many students arrive at school in the morning without having eaten breakfast. Peanuts, as a traditional part of the Haitian diet, provide much-needed protein. WFP is working with to us look at future needs and best uses for available peanuts."
Clare Leschin-Hoar is a journalist based in San Diego who covers food policy and sustainability issues.