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Jacqueline Morette almost didn’t make it to Des Moines, Iowa, last Friday morning. She’d just arrived from the airport with moments to spare, though you’d never know it from her calm smile as she took her place onstage, facing an audience of hundreds of food and agriculture experts.
A farmer from central Haiti, Morette was part of a panel on tackling malnutrition—an issue she knew intimately.
“In Haiti … infrastructure in rural areas is in bad shape, or nonexistent. Much of the country is mountainous. We farmers depend on rainfall: too much rain, you lose. Too little rain, you lose,” Morette explained through a translator. “Despite our efforts, most Haitians are food insecure. A lot of our kids are malnourished.”
The panel marked the final day of the World Food Prize Symposium, an annual conference that brings together leaders from the sciences, academia, corporations, and governments. The theme of this year’s symposium was “Take It to the Farmer”, referring to the importance of supporting subsistence farmers worldwide. Though about 60 international farmers attended the conference, only a few took the stage as panelists.
As I listened from the front row, I thought about Morette’s difficult journey. First, visa issues delayed her US trip until the last possible moment. Then a missed flight stranded Morette and her translator in Chicago overnight. Thanks to a quick airport pick-up by Oxfam organizer Jim French, they’d made it in time for the panel—barely.
Morette’s fellow panelists included Liberia’s minister of agriculture and PepsiCo’s vice president of health, among others. Most showed PowerPoint slides, displaying charts about vitamin consumption and post-harvest losses, blocky and colorful as abstract art.
Morette simply spoke about her work as head of an Oxfam partner organization, the United Women’s Association of Pouille. She explained that most aid and services in Haiti focus on the capital, Port-au-Prince, leaving rural farmers at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting malnutrition.
“As you might know, we have a big gender gap in Haiti,” she said. “We seek to narrow that gap by improving women’s incomes. Since [we began] men have joined us to work together to improve agriculture and nutrition. … We educate people not only about cash crops, but about what to consume.”
During the question and answer session, an audience member asked Morette where she saw opportunities for local leaders like her to take charge of their own development.
“The fact that I’m here is already a big help,” she said. “[Oxfam] is in rural areas and sees what’s happening there. This is a big step for any organization, to go directly to the rural farmers.”
After the panel ended, a small crowd surrounded Morette, including a young Haitian-American graduate student who began a rapid dialogue with her in Kreyol. Two women sitting behind me, who’d been nodding along with her words, also rose to greet her.
“Thank goodness,” I heard one of the women say, reaching out a hand. “I’m so glad you’re here.”