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Take 5: Dr. Patricia Wolff, executive director, Meds & Food for Kids

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2010 - Dr. Patricia Wolff headed into Haiti days after the January earthquake to find that in some parts of the country, everything had changed, and in others, life continued.

"Think about it," she says, "so there's no buildings any more, there's no food, there's no water in Port-Au-Prince, there's very little heavy equipment to lift big buildings and blocks off of people and so people are trying to keep themselves alive and digging and trying to find their relatives and then when they take them out, (to) the hospitals except the hospitals quite a long distance away have all collapsed also, so then they have to scramble around to see if someone has a vehicle..."

Essentially, she says, no one knew what worked and what didn't, who lived and who had died.

"The fog of war was just the fog of disaster."

Meds & Food for Kids, the St. Louis-based non-profit that Wolff is executive director of, has continued the production and distribution of "ready to use therapeutic food" (RUTF), treating malnourished children in Haiti. And as the Beacon has reported in recent weeks, the goal of creating a sustainable agricultural economy hasn't changed with the disaster.

Recently, Beacon spoke with Wolff about what she saw and what she'll face next when she returns to the country mid-March.

So much changed in Haiti by the time you landed there last month. What struck you about Haiti after the earthquake?

Wolff: There was too much to do, not enough people to do it and not enough ability to communicate because everything's primitive there on a good day and even the primitive forms of communication have been destroyed.

What news are we missing here in the United States that's happening in Haiti?

Wolff: How life just goes on in an ordinary way. The people in Cap Haitien who were most (affected) by the earthquake were the foreigners and the individuals who had family members who died or were injured. But for everyone else, it was a shrug. It didn't really impinge on their lives, which was really surprising to me. But I think that it's about being habituated to disaster, and we all get habituated to disaster.

The Beacon has written about how Meds & Food for Kids has adjusted to conditions but is staying on course. How do you see other nonprofits in the country adapting?

Wolff: I can't really answer that because we can't tell what they're doing from where we are. We know what their websites say and we know what their appeals for money say, but we really don't know. We wouldn't be in a position to say what they're actually doing. Sure, everybody's really busy doing things, but there's so much to be done.

Tell us about the response you've seen from the St. Louis community, and did it surprise you?

Wolff: It's been wonderful really. "Surprised" is maybe not the right word; I've been really proud of the people in St. Louis who've really stepped up to the plate. Once they saw on TV days and days and days of what the story is in this country, their heart went out to the Haitians and they've been very, very generous. Lots of people have been engaged, lots of school children have been engaged. I have actually been talking to school children who are so compassionate and ask such good questions, and they just want to be helpful. They feel bad for the people and they just want the world to be a better place. Adults ask different questions, like "How many times do we have to rescue these people?" That's not a bad question either, but what needs to happen is development. Rescue leads to more rescue and it's into infinity. Development's a hard, long slog and you've got to be patient and you've got to be culturally sensitive.

What are the next challenges that face MFK?

Wolff: The next challenge for MFK is to build a new factory, (become) sustainable, make our food production facility efficient, cost effective and pay for itself into the future and continue our agriculture program with the farmers and continue our malnutrition program with the kids. We just need to get more resources into Haiti and just keep pushing forward with that. Part of our challenge is to engage USAID and UNICEF in what we're doing because they continue to buy their "ready to use therapeutic food" from for-profit companies from the developed world and ship it into Haiti, even though we have been audited and we are a validated supplier. There's always another barrier and the most recent barrier is they don't like the size of our bags and they said that we were more expensive than the other bidder. Well, you know, it costs money, Haiti's an expensive country and development is expensive. It's clear to us that we could do this cheaper in the United States, too, but that doesn't meet anybody's definition of development.

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