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Breadfruit flour effort aims to enrich Haiti

Eighty-nine-year-old Hank Garwick has a heart for mission work.

He has made 21 trips to India and 19 trips to Haiti. For more than a decade, Garwick has been the driving force behind a project of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, a congregation that helps find sustainable ways to feed people who do not know where they will get their next meal.

Members of Hennepin Avenue Church maintain partnerships with congregations in Russia, India, Africa and Haiti. The range of outreach projects includes training rural farmers, feeding schoolchildren and helping agricultural engineers gain advanced degrees.

Now they are focusing attention on breadfruit. Garwick believes breadfruit could help Haiti, the poorest country in the northern hemisphere, to turn a native crop into a storable food source.

Breadfruit is one of the highest-yielding food plants in the world. It is a staple in many tropical regions where the green dimpled fruit - with a taste and texture similar to potatoes - is picked firm and roasted or boiled. Ripened, the fruit takes on a sweet, custard-like consistency and is eaten in small quantities as a dessert. Hennepin Avenue members believe this miracle product can help countries like Haiti produce much-needed food and jobs.

For more information on the breadfruit flour project, contact Hank Garwick or Deirdre Garvey through Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Avenue, Minneapolis 55403. Phone: (612)-871-5303.

The problem with breadfruit is its limited shelf life. In Haiti, trees produce two crops a year in spring and fall, but an estimated 40 percent to 60 percent of the fruit goes to waste because there is simply more than people or animals can eat. When ripe, fruits must be consumed within 24 to 72 hours before the flesh breaks down and is no longer appetizing.

Garwick sees a way to prolong the fruit's shelf life. He said breadfruit could be milled into flour with a shelf life of many years. He has a collection of shredded breadfruit and flour that he has kept for a decade and said, "So far, it's OK. It seems to be resistant to rodents and insects."

Hank Garwick
Hank Garwick

That means this non-perishable food staple could have a dramatic impact on a country where the World Food Program estimates that up to 40 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Deirdre Garvey chairs Hennepin's Haiti outreach committee. She has seen children in Haiti eat their only meal each day at a food program supported by her church. In nine mission trips to Haiti, Garvey also has seen mothers use an old remedy. "You'll hear a lot of proverbs in Haiti about a taste of salt," Garvey said. "In Haiti, the typical way to have your children go to bed hungry is to put a pinch of salt under their tongue."

A peanut butter factory

Hennepin Avenue's work in Haiti began in 1994. The church sent members to establish a connection with St. Martin Methodist Church near the seaside slums of Port-au-Prince. Over the years, the partnership helped build a library, expand the St. Martin complex and launch a successful community bank in the capital city. One of the most successful ventures was a peanut butter factory that created jobs and a nutritional food for street vendors to sell.

In 1996, Garwick enlisted the help of engineers with Compatible Technology International or CTI, a non-profit of which Garwick is a past executive director. Garwick recalled that Inette Durandis, with the committee on development for the Haitian Methodist Church, sought help for Haiti's farmers. "If we could make breadfruit a cash crop, it would be a godsend," Durandis told a CTI publication. Garwick worked on a similar project in India that turned fresh potatoes destined to rot in the fields into dried potato chips that were highly marketable.

In the steps leading up to creating breadfruit flour, two men shred the
In the steps leading up to creating breadfruit flour, two men shred the "potato-like" flesh of the breadfruit.

Experiments began in Haiti by processing small batches of dried breadfruit pulp through the same grinder used to make peanut butter. The results produced flour that could be used to make cookies and flatbreads. The problem was how to get Haitians to try the product. At the time, wheat flour in favorite brands was readily available in Haiti, so people had little interest in trying the innovative new local flour. The idea never caught on.

A 2002 grant from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries helped development. Trials in the church kitchen in Minneapolis turned breadfruit flour into biscuits, pancakes, cereals and snack foods.

"We were the guinea pigs," Garvey said, remembering the cereal products, in particular, were pretty good. "There was a peanut-flavored one and sort of a brown-sugar-cinnamon one. We liked them all."

The concept was good and the results palatable, but Garwick's attempts to get a mill up and running failed. Garvey said her understanding is, "every time the (Haitian) government changes, he loses his funding."

Rebuilding after the earthquake

The St. Martin Church and the peanut butter factory crumbled to the ground when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. Hennepin Avenue has raised about $35,000 to help rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

Advocates of the project say the time may be right for an innovative food source like breadfruit flour. More than half the food available on the island nation is imported. The Haitian government recognizes the long-term solution in Haiti must include agriculture that will make the country more self-sustaining. After the earthquake, Garwick again presented the breadfruit flour idea to Haitian officials and was promised a government grant to produce breadfruit flour on a large scale. Once again, the money never came.

A plate of fresh pancakes made with breadfruit flour was made at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church test kitchen.
A plate of fresh pancakes made with breadfruit flour was made at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church test kitchen.

Now Garwick has a new plan. He estimates that if he could raise $50,000 from private sources, a large-scale milling operation and bakery could be opened in Port-au-Prince to turn the flour into food.

The scope of the idea goes far beyond fresh bread and cookies in the minds of Garwick and the Hennepin Avenue church members who have worked for so long to see this project become a reality.

Processing an abundant natural resource would mean a cash crop for farmers, steady employment for men and women in the milling process and small business opportunities to open bakeries.

Garwick is not giving up. Neither is Garvey, who says, "It's such a great idea. I can't believe it hasn't happened yet. But when you work with (developing countries), patience is the first thing you learn."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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