Green islands in Isla Verde (II)
We leave the BUG and walk east along Laurel street. We cross Caoba street and one block later we see, on the corner with Doncella street, across a gas station where Loíza and Laurel streets converge, the Departamento de la Comida (The Food Department). It’s not an easy project to explain, even its name is perplexing. Its strange name dates back at least to October 2008, when the famous US food writer Michael Pollan wrote for the New York Times Sunday magazine an extensive cover article with the solemn title “Open letter to the next farmer in chief”, addressed to the presidential candidates of his country’s general elections that would take place the following month (1). Pollan questioned why the US has an Agriculture Department but no Food Department.
Upon entering the Departamento de la Comida we see a juice bar to our left and to our right an outdoor restaurant with tables under umbrellas. In the back there is farm produce for sale together with processed products like soap and marmalade, all organic and locally made. The breeze from the sea, which is only one block away, blows above and below the tables, refreshing and lowering the temperature in this scorching sunny day.
The Departamento “seeks to increase the consumption and production of ecological harvests in Puerto Rico through different services”, says its web page (2). “This project was founded in 2010 and nowadays works on the basis of a group of volunteers committed to offering a space that contributes to the link between healthy harvests and consumers. The Departamento markets, sells and promotes the best access to these harvests, so important to human health and to the wellbeing of our farmland.”
The Departamento makes weekly deliveries of produce boxes filled with local organic products. “This concept of ‘weekly box’ is part of the global CSA- Community Supported Agriculture- concept. Each individual or family that subscribes to this service is directly committing itself to the conscious consumption of harvests from the participating farms.”
Tara Rodríguez-Besosa, owner of this business, tells us that her ambition is to make the Departamento into Puerto Rico’s first food hub. “A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand”, according to the US National Good Food Network (3).
The Departamento has a non-profit component called Efecto Sombrilla (“Umbrella Effect”. Tara has a thing for strange names.), which “seeks to design, activate and bring together practices that foster the social and environmental wellbeing of the islands of Puerto Rico through agroecological projects”. It is “the group that manages the non-profit part of the Departamento de la Comida, managing services like the store, agricultural transportation, farm visits, consulting services for consumers, and membership in the CSA.”
Tara’s mother, Silka Besosa, was a successful business executive who had a lucrative top management post in the Plaza Las Américas shopping mall and turned her back on her promising career to work full time as an organic farmer. She took the decision to live a life consistent with her convictions even if it meant a life of few comforts, lots of manual labor, and little remuneration. She went to live in the rural municipality of Aibonito, one hour away by car from San Juan.
Over there, in the Barrio Pasto neighborhood, just stone’s throw away from route 718, in a weed-infested vacant lot, Silka started her new life project, the Siembra Tres Vidas farm. With the valuable help of Edwin, a local handyman with experience in farm work in Puerto Rico and New Jersey, and the guidance of social ecology scholar Nelson Alvarez’s book La Tierra Viva, they weeded and began to plow.
Not surprisingly, friends and relatives forecast that she would not endure the rigors of farm work and rural life and that she would quit in three months. Her new neighbors were also sure that this city girl would abandon the project within three months. But the three months passed and by way of willpower and stubbornness, Silka and Edwin made the farm productive and prosperous.
In the words of Nelson Alvarez:
“Silka traded away the comfort of city life and a successful marketing career because she felt the need to be coherent with her thinking and with herself. She had been farming in Siembra Tres Vidas farm in Aibonito when I visited her. Back then she already had a community-supported marketing strategy, was a member and vendor in the Madre Tierra (organic food and farm) Co-op, had her products for sale in health food stores and had been the first in Puerto Rico to develop an alternative certification for her ecological farm.”
Silka never saw the Departamento. She died of cancer in 2011. Her other daughter, Daniella, took over the farm and still lives there, an honorary Aiboniteña, working with her husband Daniel and with Edwin, planting tomatoes, carrots, bananas, green beans, lettuce, arugula, spinach, cucumbers, and much more. Her work has been featured in the local press and in US National Public Radio’s Latino USA (4).
Looking at the Departamento’s menu written in a white marker board, we note that the prices are sky-high. Omelet with vegan vianda cheese and green salsa for $12, gazpacho (a tomato-based cold vegetable soup) for $7, vianda soup for $5 to $8 depending on serving size, papaya and yerbabuena pancake with pineapple syrup for $11, baked pasta with chili and chayote on cream au gratin for $12. Dear reader, we do not know about you. We do not know if you live in elite and pricey San Francisco or Manhattan, or in the more affordable North Dakota or Central Vermont, but these prices are simply unaffordable for us. We simply cannot eat here. You can lecture us all you want about the high price of cheap food and shower us with Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan quotes, but no words change the fact that we have to eat elsewhere. In fact, most people we know could never afford any of this fare.
Right by the menu there is a poster announcing an “agricultural innovation” conference where Tara is a featured speaker. The event, called Agrohack, describes itself as “a premier agriculture innovation summit whose purpose is to propel agriculture as a sustainable source of growth and economic development”. (5)
“AGROHACK will showcase the emerging mindset and ideas that can revive our agriculture ecosystem through innovation. The event will bring together and strengthen a community of thinkers and doers whose shared purpose is moving agriculture forward in the right direction and helping Puerto Rico become an agriculture hub in the Americas.”
The agenda and list of panels and presenters do not have a single mention of justice or food sovereignty, and there is no talk of land reform. The language in this event is one of innovation and technology. Speakers include representatives of firms with names such as Semillero Ventures, Greenboard Solutions, AgropeK, GreenHopping, Digitek, E-Farm, and Agrochic. Among the very few speakers that we know by name is Puerto Rico agriculture secretary Myrna Comas, who has defended industrial agriculture, pesticides and GMO crops all the way. The main sponsor is Wal-Mart, and its web page shows a drone applying pesticides from the air, which says plenty about the agribusiness nature of this “get together”.
We ruminated on the meaning of the word hack. As a noun:
a person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts:
“As a painter, he was little more than a hack.”
a professional who renounces or surrenders individual independence, integrity, belief, etc., in return for money or other reward in the performance of a task normally thought of as involving a strong personal commitment:
“a political hack.”
And as a verb:
“to circumvent security and break into (a network, computer, file, etc.), usually with malicious intent”. (6)
In either usage, the word does not bode well for Puerto Rican agriculture.
A source informs us that the admission fee is $90 for the general public. We get the impression that this “food revolution” is for the elites only. There is no room in it for people like us.
We leave the Departamento and walk east along Loíza street toward the next stop in today’s walk: the Punta Las Marías Skate Park. Along the way we undertake the difficult task of finding affordable food in this neighborhood.
May 15 2016. Punta Las Marías, Puerto Rico.
- Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He is a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and director of the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor (http://monitorenergiayambiente.blogspot.com/search/label/English). His bilingual journalistic blog, started in 2004, is updated daily (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/search/label/eng). In 2015 he started a side project called The World According to Carmelo (http://carmeloruiz.tumblr.com/tagged/eng ). His Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.
2) http://efectosombrilla.org/ For more information: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/search/label/Departamento%20de%20la%20Comida
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