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U.N. to set up 16 food distribution sites in quake-devastated Port-au-Prince

By Peter Slevin
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A16

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Repeatedly stymied in its efforts to deliver food in the stricken Haitian capital, the United Nations announced Saturday that it will establish 16 distribution sites staffed by relief workers and protected round-the-clock by American and other international troops.

Deliveries of large sacks of rice will begin Sunday based on a system of colored coupons designed to direct food to families and limit fraud, said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the World Food Program. The organization aims to reach 10,000 people a day at each site.

The United Nations is "scaling up food distribution very, very significantly in a bid to reach 2 million people over the next 15 days," Prior said. "It's a unique response to a unique situation. We need to stabilize the food supply."

Residents and relief workers have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of food in Port-au-Prince almost three weeks after a powerful earthquake shattered homes and left as many as 1 million people sleeping on the street or in makeshift encampments.

The new strategy is a significant change from an ad hoc approach that relied on relief workers to hand out bags of dried food to large crowds. Although there were successes, many deliveries were forced to turn back because of chaos and others started well but resulted in melees.

Unable to secure sufficient protection from overstretched U.S. or U.N. troops, the World Food Program -- which has received $80 million from the United States for Haitian relief efforts -- sharply cut back its deliveries last week.

"It's a change of gears," said Prior, adding that each family of six will receive 30 pounds of rice. "We have a huge need."

Haitian President René Préval said Saturday that the food distribution effort should not be criticized.

"To feed 1 million people in 18 days is not easy. Don't be too severe," Préval said during an appearance at a makeshift hospital with University of Miami doctors and former National Basketball Association player Alonzo Mourning.

Ambassador Louis Lucke, the U.S. special coordinator for relief and reconstruction in Haiti, said rice will be delivered at all 16 sites Sunday. He played down the evidence of widespread delivery shortages in Port-au-Prince, saying that any delays probably affected only "pockets" of the city.

On Rue St. Gerard, where the earthquake casualty toll was high, Soeurette Pierre-Louis told a familiar story Saturday morning as she looked for food. She and her two daughters had not eaten since sharing two fried dough patties the previous day.

Pierre-Louis had received no U.N. food allocations, nor could she afford anything from a nearby stand, where Sadraque Polycarppe sold peanut butter sandwiches for 30 cents apiece.

Polycarppe has been selling bread from the same site for 16 years, but her bakery was a casualty of the Jan. 12 earthquake. She said staples remain hard to come by on the open market and are more expensive.

Even when she does find bread to sell, many customers say they cannot afford it.

"Sometimes it's not easy to find, and I have to look everywhere for it," she said. "I'm not making much money anymore."

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