Charcoal, an Undesired Necessity for Life

Portions of this project were first published in Food & Wine.

The World Health Origination studies have found that: Around 3 billion people still cook using solid fuels (such as wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) and kerosene in open fires and inefficient stoves. Most of these people are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries.

These cooking practices are inefficient, and use fuels and technologies that produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

Approximately 17% of premature lung cancer deaths in adults are attributable to exposure to carcinogens from household air pollution caused by cooking with kerosene or solid fuels like wood, charcoal or coal. The risk for women is higher, due to their role in food preparation.

Orphans in Homa Bay, Kenya at work making charcoal. First trees are cut down and then the wood is slowly maked underground. Desperate to survive the children sold most of the charcoal at local markets and used a little for themselves for cooking.

Orphans in Homa Bay, Kenya at work making charcoal. First trees are cut down and then the wood is slowly maked underground. Desperate to survive the children sold most of the charcoal at local markets and used a little for themselves for cooking.

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Left: a mother with her newborn child at a hospital kitchen in Sierra Leone. Right: a peasant cooks in a traditional oven in Hunan Province, China.

Haiti

Haiti illustrates how devastating the reliance on charcoal can be and its impact on the environment. Its history is a long one. Alex von Tunzelmann, a historian and writer says, "The French didn't manage the land at all well," she says. "The process of soil erosion really began then. And then in the chaos after the revolution, the land was simply parcelled out into little plots, occupied mainly by individual families. And since the 1950s, people have been cutting it down and cooking on charcoal. As the population has soared, the forests have come down. Haiti is now about 98% deforested. It's extraordinary. You can see it from space. The problem is, it was those ­forests, those tree roots, that held the soil together. So with every new storm, more topsoil and clay disappears." ­

That legacy continues to this day.

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A Transformation Underway

Following the earthquake of 2010 Chef José Andres traveled to Haiti which inspired him to found his own non profit World Central Kitchen. Following the creation of WCK José joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which operates with the assistance from the United Nations and launched in 2010 as culinary ambassador. He said that he “went to Haiti to assist in humanitarian relief efforts, and saw that the grinding poverty they live with day-to-day had been exacerbated by dirty cooking conditions in overcrowded and unsafe tent cities.”

World Central Kitchen has expanded in Haiti with numerous programs including Haiti Breathes. The program’s goal is to convert Haiti’s school kitchens to use liquid petroleum gas from burning solid matter including charcoal.. In 2016, World Central Kitchen converted 50 school kitchens to propane stoves and has set a goal of creating 40 new school kitchens by 2019, according to its annual report. The following photos are from José’s first trip to Haiti.

Chef José Andres takes the lid off of a pot powered by a parabolic solar stove. The stove refracts the sun and concentrates it to heat the food which can cut down on the reliance for people to cook with charcoal, a product of cut trees.

Chef José Andres takes the lid off of a pot powered by a parabolic solar stove. The stove refracts the sun and concentrates it to heat the food which can cut down on the reliance for people to cook with charcoal, a product of cut trees.

José In his own words: “The kitchens, called parabolics, look like metal beach umbrellas; a rack in the middle holds a large pot. During my week in Haiti, I show the village women how to direct the concave panels toward the sun and harness the energy required for long, continuous heat. I make a decent sausage stew with rice and peas that feeds about 200 people. But more people keep coming.The kitchens, called parabolics, look like metal beach umbrellas; a rack in the middle holds a large pot. During my week in Haiti, I show the village women how to direct the concave panels toward the sun and harness the energy required for long, continuous heat. I make a decent sausage stew with rice and peas that feeds about 200 people. But more people keep coming.”

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In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake José traveled the island asking displaced residents if they could benefit from parabilic ovens (the overwhelming reply was yes). We also talked about how we could portray Hatians differently than they usually are in the general media. One thing we noticed was that in the IDP camps the food sellers at makeshift stalls each had an individuality to their recipes. Although displaced they still took pride in cooking flavorful meals. Rather than focusing only on the poverty and displacement that surrounded their lives we wanted to explore how defined themselves through the culinary processes they held onto. It was not easy in those hard days to find added ingredients for their foods, however those who really cared made the effort to find ingredients and liven up their meals even if it meant some finely chopped jalapenos in a simple potato fritter.

Hélène Thérèse, photographed above, who made an effort to restock her little stand with more than just jalapenos said: “I'm a Haitian: I need a little spice in my life—and that begins in my food! The earthquake took away so much from us, but not my love to cook. Cooking is so important to me as a Haitian, it’s a part of my identity and I express my Haitian heritage though how I cook. It's not easy to find ingredients in this devastated environment, but I try and at the end of the day I manage to make something special out of what little we have. Some have said that we've resorted to eating dirt mixed with butter! I will never eat dirt, but find a way to be creative even when times are hard. Sometimes that only means some chopped jalapenos in my fritters, but I'll make your mouth water with whatever I have."