As a current Food Studies graduate student with a nutritional background, I was fairly excited to participate in the Global Food Cultures Puerto Rico study abroad opportunity over spring break. The curriculum for this week long intensive course incorporated different social, economic and environmental aspects of Puerto Rico’s food system. My primary focus during the trip was to understand the systematic side of Puerto Rico’s agriculture production, distribution practices and how the island is trying to be more self-reliant in terms of food access. As a poor developing territory of the United States, Puerto Rico imports 90% of the food the island consumes, making it extremely vulnerable to unforeseen catastrophes that could have serious consequences on the island’s food supply. This is the primary issue driving the local food revolution, which unlike the states, started about five years ago and has a long challenging road ahead.
As evidence to how predominate the issue is an article published Monday, March 16 in The San Juan Daily Star newspaper titled “Farm Bureau: Puerto Rico Needs More Agricultural Self Sufficiency” stressed the unforeseen consequences of Puerto Rico’s dependence of imports and how there is a dire need to develop a reliable local/regional food system on the island. The article is mainly centered around Puerto Rico Farm Bureau’s president, Hector Ivan Cordero, overwhelming perspective of how serious the reality that the island’s food security is extremely vulnerable due to the fact majority of imports come by sea and there have been various changes recently in the maritime supply chain that has decreased the amount of trips ships are making to the island. Since the 1980s Puerto Rico has experienced severe decline in agricultural production and Mr. Cordero believes there is no better time than now to bring Puerto Rican farmer’s voice to the local and federal government in order to create a sustainable food system that meets the demand of the island’s food market. This reasonable plea of rejuvenating Puerto Rico’s agriculture will take time to generate momentum as it moves through the necessary municipal channels. Fortunately, on Tuesday, March 17 we visited two establishments that are run by individuals who essentially have the same interests in local food production but see different ways of promoting it and currently utilizing it.
The first place we visited was El Departamento de la Comida, a local food hub located in Tras Talleres, a working class urban neighborhood in San Juan. Tara Rodriguez, the young entrepreneur, developed this alternative retailer after being inspired by her mother’s organic farming endeavor. From taking what she learned from working on her mother’s, Three Lives Farm, Tara realized farmers do not have the essential business know how to financially manage and market their farming business in order to generate profit to cover overhead costs. This essentially paved the way to Tara’s role as the middle man between farmer and consumer which she takes very seriously. She works mainly with small to medium scale farmers that she personally engages with learning everything she can about them and their farm so she can share their stories with her clients. The farmer’s she decides to work with are not necessarily USDA organic certified but they do produce their food in a sustainable way. El Departamento de la Comida is the only space currently in San Juan that an individual can purchase locally produced food during the week because Puerto Rico currently does not have many farmer’s markets that are consistently running or easily accessible. Additional services Tara’s business offers is a CSA subscription that is $30 a week, a commercial kitchen that creates a different menu everyday utilizing fresh local ingredients, and has plans to coordinate a RSA (Restaurant Supported Agriculture) within the next month or so due to the increase of demand from local restaurant owners who value and support local agriculture. Tara’s goal is to collaborate with other individuals and businesses to generate a demand within the market that may need a larger supplier to assist in distributing the produce.
During our visit at El Departamento de la Comida we were accompanied by Gualberto Rodriguez (the two are not related) who is the manager of Caribbean Produce Exchange, the longest and largest running food distributor on the island. Gualberto’s business manages the supply chain of fresh produce on the large scale of distributing. Caribbean Produce services large restaurant chains, big box grocery stores and the hotel industry bringing the supply to the source of demand. Although there are numerous challenges with sourcing local produce for the needs of large corporations, Gualberto realizes that the stacks of imported goods that make up a client’s order needs to be diversified with locally produced products. Therefore, he has been working with Tara from El Departomento de la Comida to identify specialty markets that local food producers can profit from with little competition. For example, Gualberto was approached by a married couple interested in growing produce to sell in the market and Gualberto advised them to grow mushrooms because the shelf life of mushrooms once imported is extremely short and after taking that advice Puerto Rico now has a local source of portabella mushrooms. Although Gualberto’s business practices are essentially profit driven he values the importance of sourcing food locally; however he believes that local agriculture cannot produce enough food to feed the entire population of Puerto Rico and suggests that local food should be used to supplement demand until he receives it from an outside source.
Both distribution models are working to improve Puerto Rico’s food system but are approaching the same problem just a little different meeting specific needs they identify as gaps within the current system. Although the local food movement is essentially just beginning in Puerto Rico, there are individuals who are resilient to setbacks and will strive to see Puerto Rico less dependent on imported foods.
Here is the link to The San Juan Daily Star
If you want to hear Tara Rodriguez’s story follow this link