In 2008, images surfaced of women in Haiti carefully spreading spoonfuls of mud into discs, and drying them in the hot sun. These discs, however, were not meant to be pottery: they were food. As food prices rose, Haiti’s poorest people were turning to “mud cookies” to keep hunger at bay. Sadly, the situation hasn’t improved much since then.
Desperate Haitians eat Mud Cookies
For many years, pregnant women in the country have eaten mud cookies as an antacid and source of calcium. Unfortunately for many Haitians, these little dirt discs have become a regular meal. This is particularly true in Haiti’s most notorious slum, Cite Soleil.
The dirt to make the cookies comes from the central town of Hinche. Merchants drive the dirt down in trucks to the La Saline Market, where women buy the dirt. These women then carry the dirt in buckets up to the roof of the area’s former prison. They use a sheet to sift through the dirt, straining out rocks and clumps. Next, the women stir in shortening and salt, pat the mixture into mud cookies, and leave them in the hot sun to dry.
Once the cookies are done, they sell them in markets or on the street.
For Charlene, who shares a house with her baby, five siblings, and two unemployed parents, the cookies have become a staple.
“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” she said .
The cookies have a buttery, salty taste that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth. Charlene says she actually likes the flavor, but that the cookies often cause her stomach to hurt. When she eats them and nurses her baby, she says he gets colicky, too.
Marie-Carmelle Baptiste is a cookie producer. She explained that no one eats the cookies because they want to, or because of the taste. They eat them out of necessity.
“It stops the hunger,” she said. “You eat them when you have to.” 
Why Are Haitians Eating Mud Cookies?
So what could possibly drive an entire group of people into eating mud to stay alive? The answer is a perfect storm of events. At the heart of the issue, however, is food prices.
Food prices in Haiti went up because of rising oil prices around the world. As a country, these types of fluctuations affect them more significantly because Haiti is almost completely reliant on food imports.
Rural infrastructure in the country is almost non-existent thanks to chronic under-investment. In addition, the slashing and burning of forests for farming and charcoal have destroyed the nutrients in the soil and rendered it nearly useless.
To add to the problem, the Haitian government made a decision in the 1980s to lift tariffs when international prices were lower. Cheap imported rice and vegetables came pouring into the country, which made domestic farmers go bankrupt .
Now, however, food prices are rising at an alarming rate. In 2008, when the story of the mud cookies received international attention, food prices had increased by forty percent. The 2007 hurricane season also caused a significant amount of flooding and crop damage, leaving many Haitians destitute.
As of 2008, eighty percent of Haitians lived off of just two dollars per day. When two cups of rice costs sixty cents, (fifty percent higher than the previous year) and beans and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, many of them can’t keep up. The mud cookies, however, cost just five cents apiece. For someone who is rationing out two dollars, this is their only option.
Do the Cookies Provide Any Nutritional Value?
Interestingly enough, even in more prosperous times, Haitians still eat mud cookies, according to correspondence from the World Food Programme. Pregnant women, in particular, eat them as a type of “medicine”, or nutritional supplement, to increase their calcium intake.
The practice of eating earth or clay is called “geophagy”. Humans have been doing this for centuries, as a cure for poison, plague, and other infections. It can also act as an anti-nausea aide. In fact, a jar of montmorillonite clay pills from France cost 36 dollars .
But are mud cookies actually healthy? Not particularly.
Gerald N. Callahan is an immunology professor at Colorado State University. He says dirt can contain deadly toxins, but can also strengthen a foetus’s immune system to certain diseases when they’re in the womb. That being said, the mud cookies contain very little in terms of vitamins or nutritional value. Eating them as your main source of sustenance significantly increases your risk for malnutrition.
“Trust me, if I see someone eating those cookies, I will discourage it,” said executive director of Haiti’s health ministry, Dr. Gabriel Thimothee .
The Situation has Shown Little Improvement
Sadly, in the last twelve years, the situation in Haiti has shown little improvement. An earthquake in January 2019 devastated Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. The quake killed more than 200 thousand people, destroyed one million people’s homes, and used up all of the emergency food supplies from aid organizations. The result? Haitians are still food insecure and eating mud cookies.
Patrick McCormick is a spokesman for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He says that Haitians have been eating these cookies for years, and they are resorting to them again.
“Food is not getting to everyone, there are still people who are not receiving enough assistance in Haiti and this is for sure,” he said .
According to aid organisations, the instance of malnutrition had dropped significantly the year prior. The earthquake, however, reversed much of the progress the country had made. Sarah Wilson is part of Christian Aid’s assessment team in Haiti. She says that they had been very optimistic about the situation in Haiti at Christmas.
“It looked like the following year would be the first year of growth in decades and now everything has gone into reverse and is much worse,” she explained .
Haitians are Still Eating Mud Cookies in 2020
Fast-forward to 2020, and the situation hasn’t gotten much better. Drought over the last few years has worsened food shortages and raised prices. The price of imported food has also jumped because of the collapse of the gourde (Haiti’s currency), and anti-government protests forced businesses to close for three months in the fall of 2019. This not only disrupted the transportation of goods, but also food aid.
Because of government instability over the last decade, donating to help the country has been difficult. The country now has no authorized government or budget, which means that Haiti is no longer allowed to access certain funds set aside for it from international organizations.
As a result, one in three Haitians currently need urgent food assistance. That is approximately 3.7 million people. One mother now has to carefully choose when to feed her children, because she cannot feed them three times per day.
“No one has eaten yet today but if I feed my kids too early in the day they are hungry by night and cannot sleep,” she said 
Mud cookies may not look good or taste good, and they may not provide much in the way of nutrition, but they do put something in a hungry belly. Until the situation in Haiti improves, the people will continue to eat them. Let’s hope that someday, that will only be because they want to, and not because they have to.