[Above: Dining choices in Ponce, Puerto Rico. All photos: Kathryn Warnes.]
On a recent visit to Puerto Rico we enjoyed exploring variations of mofongo, a classic island dish made of plantains or yucca root mashed, molded, fried to a crisp, and sometimes stuffed with meat. This dish is a prime example of the many influences that can shape a cuisine.
But the iconic dish was always served with a sad salad of shredded iceberg and the palest tomatoes to grace a plate. In a climate that offers mild 70-90°F weather year round, where were the bright vegetables? We see the same pattern in other islands and countries as well: A great local dish accompanied by poor produce, or none at all.
Puerto Rico’s food scene has been getting a lot of press lately, everything from chefs’ embracing the locavore philosophy on the tranquil island of Vieques, to loss of agriculture as an economic industry, to proposed legislation that would fine parents for raising obese children to combat the growing epidemic. Disparities certainly exist. Could embracing the local food movement bridge the gap and benefit everyone?
Food is a part of how we experience places. What grows in a place and the characteristics the food takes from the land, the sea, and the people influences traditions and customs. Food can be a conduit for changing trends and new interpretations of classics. In Puerto Rico the history of Spanish colonialism is evident in the cuisine, the architecture, and customs, as are the influences brought in by the African slave trade and the plethora of fast food joints and big box stores from American influence of today.
Lush verdant land covers Puerto Rico, at one time predominately used for agriculture, the island’s former main export. Now Puerto Rico exports its population in search of jobs while importing 80% of its food—90% of which could be grown on the island according to experts . If Puerto Rico were able to replace 90% of its agricultural imports with locally grown produce, it would represent about $3.15 billion that would stay in the island’s economy, plus about 85,000 new jobs in the agricultural sector. It would also lower the cost of food by reducing middleman and transportation expenses.
“Today approximately 74.11 percent of the farms are under cultivation. This means that there is still potential to increase local production by at least 20 percent,” says Gladys González, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Puerto Rico.
The disparity between locals and tourists was most striking on the island of Vieques. Lining the Malecon in Esperanza, was a strip of bars and restaurants patronized by, run by, and served by North Americans with not much else in town other than a bakery and a few corner stores. In other places I have traveled, the small yards of village homes boast kitchen gardens providing not only nutrition but also fresh bright flavors. I only spotted one such yard during our exploration of the island, growing some beautiful eggplants, while the surrounding houses hosted a scraggle of chickens, dogs, and horses. A few of the restaurants boast local ingredients, but New England oysters and standard fried pub fare was the norm.
Could the yards of Vieques go to feeding families and tourists rather than birds for cock-fights? How much would it cost to implement an economic alternative providing fresh meat and cut down on the expense of imports both in dollars and fossil fuel consumption of shipping?
Here in D.C. rooftop gardens have shown great success maximizing sun, out of reach of normal garden pests. How wonderful would it be for Puerto Rican hotel and apartment rooftops to be adorned with tomato, herb, and citrus plants; providing fresh ingredients for the kitchens downstairs? Education is needed to share sustainable growing techniques, including training and resources for communities. The tourism industry that already exists can provide financial incentives that would yield tastier results for everyone and improve community diets with fresh fruit and vegetables over imported junk food.
With climate change becoming an issue for everyone, new techniques for efficient irrigation are being developed to maximize water supply and people are starting to consider sustainable farming techniques needed to feed the future. Organized community garden workshops and models such as Compost Cab, which facilitate communal composting, can have huge benefits for the communities. We have seen the power of garden education to bring communities together in a healing way for underserved communities providing nutrition in food desserts, schools, and yes to the restaurants and tourist who visit as well.
Studies have also shown that for every dollar spent on local agricultural products, 70¢ stays in the local economy. Helping Puerto Rico regain food security would reduce the cost and pollution of unnecessary trade, and provide fresher, tastier food for both locals and visitors, who are a large sector of the economy. Plus it would be much more effective at addressing health concerns for families who are simply trying to eat what is affordable and available.
If a good model is developed here, imagine the delicious results of spreading food security throughout Caribbean destinations with similar issues.