The Least of These Ministries, a faith-based, nondenominational relief organization founded by Manchester resident Steve Hull and his wife, shipped 200,000 meal packages to undernourished Haitian sugar cane workers this week.
On the morning of Oct. 10, the organization took possession of the food packages from another group, Feed My Starving Children, after pledging to transport the food to Haitians living in work camps in the Dominican Republic. The shipment was passed along later this week.
This massive shipment — 47,000 pounds, valued at about $140,000 — is the latest installment in the Westminster-based volunteer mission's 11-year initiative to provide basic nutrition to workers in the Dominican and Haitian plantations — also knows as bateys, which are little more than agricultural labor camps.
In 1999, the Least of These Ministries launched its program by feeding 360 people in one batey. Today, the group feeds 9,000 and delivers more than 300,000 meals a year to the impoverished Haitian laborers and their families.
The ministry also undertakes at least five missions a year to the Dominican Republic distribute the food and provide other relief efforts.
Hull, a retired business owner, said the families his organization feeds in the work camps endure a level of hunger and malnutrition that most of us can barely imagine.
"These workers were in slavery until 2005, until the laws (in the Dominican Republic) changed," Hull said. "The only place they could buy food was from a company store, and they never made enough money to pay off their bills there. They weren't even allowed to leave the village, to go to town or visit the doctor."
Hull learned first-hand about the plight of these people in the 1990s, when he was on a volunteer mission to build a church in one of the camps.
"It wasn't until our last day there that we realized the children were all hungry," he said. "They would come around every day and we would give them a piece of our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We just figured they liked peanut butter and jelly, but later we realized they were starving."
Even when laws changed in 2005, the living conditions of the Haitian immigrants barely improved. Around the same time, the bateys started using machinery for planting and sowing their crops and many of the people lost their less-than-subsistent jobs.
The infant death rate in the communities had reached more than 30 percent, largely because the women lacked the nourishment to produce sufficient milk for their babies.
"A typical meal for them is (a small portion of) rice and beans," Hull said. "When they can save enough money they buy a bone with a little red on it from a street vendor and cook it 10 times just to add a little flavor to the rice and beans.
"Some of the villages even eat 'mud cookies' to survive. They gather mud from whirlpools in the streams, where the sediment actually has some nourishment in it, and dry them it in the sun," he said. "For some of these people that's the only way they can stay alive."
Hull and his wife run the Least of These Ministries out the same building at 170 Airport Drive in Westminster where he used to run his glass business. But the couple and their fellow volunteer board members spend much of their time speaking to church congregations up and down the East Coast to raise donations and enlist volunteers in their efforts.
"We have to get the word out to people in a wider area, because if everybody gives a little, there will be enough to go around," he said.
Because their organization's board and U.S.-base staff are all volunteer, the mission's overhead is minimal. Nearly all the money raised goes to buying and shipping food. The Least of These Ministries also provides school supplies to needy clients and undertakes various construction projects in the villages.
Hull says there is one question he always gets when he speaks at churches and is always eager to answer: Why not teach these people how to raise a garden?
His reply: easier said than done.
"Here in the United States, when they abolished slavery, everyone was supposed to get 40 acres and a mule," he said. "But down there, they didn't even get 10 square feet of land."
Hulls said the economic downturn of the past few years has negatively impacted the level of donations the Least of These Ministry receives.
That's why the 200,000 meal packages from the Minnesota-based Feed My Starving Children, and subsequently shipped to the Dominican Republic, was such a godsend.
"We had been trying for a long time to get on their list," Hull said of Feed My Starving Children. "They have determined we are doing a good job down there, and in fact they said they are going to copy some of the methods we use.
"You'd be surprised at how nasty people can get when they are hungry," he said. "But at our villages we have 250 to 300 people standing in line with their pots and pans just for a little food, and you'd be surprised how calmly and quietly they do it."
For more information on the Least of These Ministries and its relief efforts, go to http://www.leastofthesemin.org.