Librarian taps expertise and family to fight hunger in Haiti
When Inga Haugen was a small child, her father, Vance Haugen, taught her the meaning behind the Chinese proverb “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Throughout her life, Inga Haugen believed that it’s better to do something about a problem than complain about it and do nothing. The University Libraries’ agriculture, life science, and scholarly communication librarian said although a candle is just a small flicker of light that won’t illuminate an entire space, it is still a worthy step in the right direction of solving the issue of darkness.
“My parents’ ethos direct my footsteps. The top two values that I hold are that we need to take care of each other and we need to have fun,” she said.
Inga Haugen was raised on Springside Farm on the outskirts of Canton, Minnesota. Vance Haugen was an Extension farming agent for the University of Wisconsin, and her mother, Bonnie, ran their 100-head dairy farm.
Inga Haugen grew up old-school. Agriculture and self-sustainability was her traditional foundation, and she learned valuable lessons with that type of upbringing.
“If it is hungry, feed it. We gotta work as a team and we should all care about where our food comes from, and the amount of labor that it takes is more than most folks know,” she said.
When Inga Haugen reached adulthood, she moved away from her family farm to explore educational and career opportunities. In December of 2014, she found a new home at Virginia Tech.
Blacksburg is roughly 1,000 miles away from the family farm. But that distance couldn’t separate her from the selfless values that her family instilled in her as a child. Her commitment to her family’s ethics became evident during a conversation with a friend about food insecurity in Haiti.
“I was talking with a friend who was telling me about this trip down to Haiti. He told me about some of the information he was given about agriculture options to help fight the hunger that they faced. Because of my agricultural background, I thought that I could help,” Inga Haugen said.
Haiti has some of the highest reported rates of underweight children in Latin America. Roughly 20 percent of the region’s youth is affected by malnutrition, which affects a child’s ability to grow and develop.
Hunger is a long-standing issue for Haitian communities. Inga Haugen knew that she couldn’t solve the entire problem, but she could light a candle.
In 2017, she visited Haiti to see if there was something she could do to help provide a source of food, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out a plan.
“We found the breadfruit trees,” she said.
Breadfruit is a superfood native to Haiti that is packed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and protein. It is also versatile, as it can be used in stir fry, pastries, and flour.
Inga Haugen assembled a team of medical affiliates and local leaders and partnered with The Trees That Feed Foundation to create the breadfruit project. However, the team wasn’t complete without the man who gave Haugen her farming knowledge and the moral impulse to help others – her father.
“I thought of him immediately. I’ve got skills, and he’s got a lot of background and experience. It was very special to be able to work with dad on a project like that,” she said.
Vance Haugen’s main role was to help set up research plots and develop a strategy with Hatians and medical missionaries to plant the breadfruit trees.
“I thought it was great that Inga was involved in something like this. I felt like I could be useful for the project, and it was just a hoot to be able to go and work there with my daughter,” Vance Haugen said.
In addition to planting breadfruit tree saplings, Inga Haugen and her team supplied the locals with training and education on farming and nutrition. She also identified leaders within the communities that could continue the project for years to come.
“We’ve got 152 farmers that have signed on to this program to be able to connect with their communities. Each of those farmers have signed on for a five- to 10-year hitch because they are committed to raising the breadfruit tree saplings, and we’ve planted about 400 trees. About 25 percent of the fruits that come from those trees will be given to food insecure people at the discretion of the community health workers,” Inga Haugen said.
The breadfruit project is also benefiting the academic world. In April, Inga Haugen and her team published an article in the Journal of Global Health Reports describing their efforts behind the project, demonstrating that agricultural intervention can help with global health concerns.
“One of the editors told me that he will be using it as a case study in the class he teaches. And so this is big, and we can reference this. We can put this in grant proposals. The article shows that the project worked. This can help people,” she said.
There are still more trees to plant and people to feed. But as long as the need exists, Inga Haugen will be looking for ways to lend a helping hand.
“I don’t want anybody in the whole world to go to bed hungry,” she said. “And I can’t solve the whole world, but I can do some things with the resources that I’ve got to be able to move forward. It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”