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Puerto Rico and a New Generation Of Small Farmers

This week, NPR’s The Salt blog featured this story about a school teacher in the central town of Orocovis in Puerto Rico, trying to motivate students to go back to the land. This is part of the burgeoning agricultural initiatives in the island, working to shift the stereotype of agriculture being an occupation for those who have nothing better to do, and the stigma against the jíbaro – the rural peasant.
 
“Although it’s a tropical island, perhaps surprisingly, Puerto Rico produces very little of its own food. After decades of industrialization, the U.S. territory imports more than 80 percent of what’s consumed on the island. There are signs, though, the trend is changing.”

Read the story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/05/06/404649122/puerto-rico-is-sowing-a-new-generation-of-small-farmers

Looking at Puerto Rico’s Food System with New Eyes

I start this post in a plane. This time I am returning to New York after teaching the week-long intensive study abroad course Global Food Cultures: Puerto Rico. The course was a wonderful and rewarding teaching collaboration with fellow NYU professor, Gustavo Setrini. Through months of planning, we successfully combined expertise and interest in different aspects of the food system, and our different experiences in Puerto Rico.

The week started with a traditional meal at La Casita Miramar, followed by an early morning trip to the center of the island. We learned about pineapples, colonial sugar plantation systems, as well as coffee production and tasting. The journey carried on through the food system, continuing with distribution, marketing and consumption. It was amazing to witness the course unfold, and how the connections between the different aspects of the food system fell beautifully into place. Moreover, the experience allowed me to learn about my Puerto Rico through a new sets of eyes – 13 pairs to be exact!

Atenas Pineapple Plantation

Hydroponic Agriculture at the University of Puerto Rico in Utuado

Dairy farm in Hatillo

Departamento de la Comida

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Student interaction at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Campus

Tasting and conversation at Verde Mesa in Old San Juan

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Visit with Secretary of Agriculture, Dr. Mirna Comas.

Urban gardening at the Cano Martin Pena

Enjoying home-made limbers

Fresh carrucho (conch) from La Comay in Loiza

Tasting and conversing at Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas

Final activity at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados del Caribe in Old San Juan

The week’s activities are documented through individual student essays in the following blog: https://nyufoodstudiespr.wordpress.com/

Read, enjoy and share!

Changing diets and a call to action

Diets are changing, and a recently published study in The Lancet Global Health journal describes how. Moving beyond measures of food availability and industry-derived reports on food imports and exports, the Global Burden of Diseases Nutrition and Chronic Diseases Expert Group provides us with a first of its kind systematic dietary assessment to characterize global dietary patterns using 325 surveys encompassing 187 countries covering almost 4.5 billion adults.

Aside from providing an excellent picture of diets worldwide, what I particularly liked about the study was the authors’ move beyond more traditional analyses to looking foods and nutrients in healthy and unhealthy patterns, separately. Healthy items were: Whole grains, fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, milk, fiber, polyunsaturated fat, seafood omega-3, plant omega-3 and calcium. Unhealthy items were: sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, salturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol and sodium. Both sets of items were derived from scientifically established relationships between food/nutrient and health.

This approach resulted in both good and (mostly) bad news:

“Compared with low-income countries, high-income countries had higher healthy dietary pattern scores, but substantially lower unhealthy dietary pattern scores. Consumption of healthier foods and nutrients has modestly increased during the past two decades; however, consumption of unhealthy foods and nutrients has increased to a greater extent. Improvements in healthier foods were seen in high-income and middle income countries; by contrast, no improvements were seen in the poorest regions.”

The significance of these findings are that, as the authors point out, “although caloric deficits and disease burdens other than those of NCDs must not be overlooked in some low-income countries, the trends in dietary patterns we note show the urgent need to focus on improvement of diet quality among poor populations worldwide. Left unaddressed, undernutrition and deficiency diseases will be rapidly eclipsed in these populations by obesity and [non-communicable diseases, as is already occurring in India, China, and other middle-income nations.”

And this, for me, is the main takeaway of this article – the need to start moving quickly to address the growing burden of malnutrition in low and middle income countries. Yet – the task at hand is not an easy one. Governments with already low resources to address food and nutrition problems will need to devise a two pronged approach to promote and encourage the consumption of healthy foods, while at the same time devising policies that diminish the consumption of unhealthy items. It is in this second task that the difficulties lie, as they may go against market investments and interests that promote the consumption of the calorie dense, ultra-processed foods driving the widening of waistlines worldwide. These efforts need to move beyond medical, reductionist and individual-centered approaches to nutrition problems, and start encompassing the wider context in which food choices are made, including businesses, agriculture, and development policies, to name a few. It also calls for encompassing the influence of global and transnational policies, and how these affect food access and availability, food preferences and ultimately food consumption worldwide.

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Original article: Fumiaki Imamura, Renata Micha, Shahab Khatibzadeh, Saman Fahimi, Peilin Shi, John Powles, Dariush Mozaffarian. Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment. The Lancet Global Health, 2015; 3 (3): e132 DOI: 10.1016/S2214-109X(14)70381-X

Source: El Vocero

Soda and happiness during the holidays

Catching up after a Christmas visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this interesting post in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics Blog, Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style. Mexico has been at the forefront fighting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including implementing a soda tax, which has decreased soda consumption in the country. These efforts have been in response to Mexico’s high obesity rates and incidence of related health conditions, including diabetes.

The latest in these health advocacy messages target drink choices during the holidays, including an ad featuring Santa Claus. The video shows Santa apologizing for “being part of a company that denies information to the consumer and takes advantage of children”, ending with his resignation from the company and a plead for children to “stop drinking these drinks”:

This ad, along with the active government role in addressing soda consumption, stand in sharp contrast with my recent observations during my short Puerto Rican Christmas. The island, like Mexico, also suffers from high rates of obesity, and diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability. Yet, little, if any, public health initiatives or advertisement is seen to combat this. On the contrary, companies like Coca-Cola, are enjoying the benefits of more sales! This recent trend is related to their newest campaign, “Share a Coke”, where consumers are able to find their names or family names in the bottles. This simple addition has reversed the downward sales trend for the company. And – of course – Puerto Rico got an adapted (or creolized) version of this campaign:

Source: El Vocero

Source: El Vocero

The campaign includes the most common last names in Puerto Rico, colloquial nicknames (for example, “Panita” and “Jevo”), as well as positive emotions such as “love” and “happiness”. Quoted in a local newspaper, Puerto RIco’s Coca-Cola marketing director underscores the role of this soda in “uniting people for more than 128 years to create moments of happiness” (my translation). Yet, the same moments of happiness can be achieved over an icy cold glass of water, lemonade, or an equally cold Medalla (the local beer, in moderation).

The “Share a Coke” campaign was rolled out in September of last year (2014), about two months after the local health department published a page-long ad against sodas and sugar sweetened beverages, featuring the familiar image of the drinks alongside a multitude of sugar packets,

Source: Radio Isla

Source: Radio Isla

Not surprisingly, this ad was received with criticism from representatives of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sadly, the opposition was also shared by members of one of the main political parties, the (pro-statehood) Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), claiming “negative effects for the consumer”. Similar opposition can be found from a proposal for a soda tax of 14 cents per liter in the island. In the end, push-backs like these, masked as being in favor the consumer, are unfortunate examples of the political barriers facing public health, despite the deleterious effects for the population.

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San Guivin

San Guivin is “Puerto Rico’s favorite saint”, or so the joke goes. We celebrate this “saint” by gathering around with family, eating pavochón with a side of arroz con gandules, morcilla, pasteles, potato salad and anything else that makes it to the table. Before eating, people give thanks for the good things that have happened throughout the year. The meal ends with a nice dessert, flan being the one of choice in a lot of Boricua households. In recent years, this celebration is followed by a day of extreme shopping, where people gather in lines and fight over, mostly, electronics and toys on sale.

San Guivin is our adapted version of Thanksgiving. For many schoolchildren in the island, celebration starts a day prior to Thanksgiving break with the ‘Maraton del Pavo’ (the turkey marathon). The winner of this race gets a frozen turkey, the next two a frozen whole chicken, and from fourth to tenth place, a live chick. How this part of the celebration came to be? It is unknown, but it seems to point to a charitable custom that stuck thereafter.

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This North American holiday is also known to Puerto Ricans as El Dia del Pavo (Turkey Day), or, as El Dia de Accion de Gracias, a more proper translation. In Canada and the US, Thanksgiving is inspired by the Pilgrims’ arrival the northern continent and it was first celebrated in the 1600s. In Puerto Rico there were no Pilgrims. In fact, while Pilgrims were settling in North America, cities were already up and running on the island as well as in a lot of countries in Latin America. The celebration of Thanksgiving is part of the cultural influence of the US, just like Christmas replaced the more traditional Three Kings Day, especially in San Juan. We have adapted the holiday through the dishes, seasoning the turkey with our spices (sometimes stuffing it with mofongo), and adding our own dishes, such as the rice with pigeon peas (gandules) and the pasteles, the two dishes we continue to eat through December and the start of January. And, of course, we are not the only ones adding a cultural twist to this “American” holiday,

San Guivin is a delicious holiday. While ever more distanced from its Puritan roots, the celebration has changed to a wonderful excuse to get together, eat, and then eat some more…

Happy San Guivin’ and buen provecho!

26 old pavo

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Post written with Omar A. Dauhajre

The Almost “Local” Sancocho

Last Saturday was a rainy day. A morning stroll at the farmer’s market, combined with the cold weather, prompted the idea of a Saturday afternoon sancocho, a heavy soup enjoyed in many Latin American countries. The ingredients vary, usually including a mixture of root crops, vegetables, and meats, boiled for hours to allow the thickening of the broth and the melding of flavors. The morning market stroll turned into a scavenger hunt for the ingredients. Potatoes – check. Tomatoes – check. Calabaza – Check! Even aji dulces! Certain meats were there (but outside of my budget). Ñame? Yautia? Plantains? Those were another story, curtailing the goal of making a “local sancocho”. Therefore, the trip to the farmer’s market was followed by a visit to the supermarket. The end result? A delicious and comforting sancocho, and a compromise between honoring my food heritage and supporting the ethos of eating local:


This week we observed World Food Day, along with calls to “eat locally and think globally.” Living in New York City in very close proximity to the Union Square Greenmarket, the opportunity to live up to this ethos is always around. The Union Square Market lies within a 10 minute leisure walk from home and work. It is expansive, crowded and boasts with colorfulness and deliciousness. These markets allow for the discovery, admiration and tasting of many colorful varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, string beans, among others. In them I have experienced new vegetables and witnessed how vegetables look fresh picked. These sights and smells are a long way from the bright orange carrots, the reddish, perfectly round tomatoes and the ever-present iceberg lettuce wrapped in plastic I grew up consuming from supermarkets in Puerto Rico.

Admittedly, my first experiences at farmer’s markets were intimidating. These were back in Boston, while completing my graduate degree in (ironically) applied nutrition and food policy. Just like in NYC, Boston offers many opportunities to engage farmers and buy local produce. During my first visits I just looked from a safe distance. The variety of colors and types of leafy greens as well as the unfamiliar vegetables seemed overwhelming. And, yes, the recipe cards were there. The farmers smiled and offered to talk about their produce. Still, I lacked the confidence to ask what these vegetables were and how to eat them. Fellow patrons knew what they wanted, and celebrated the varieties sitting at the farmer’s tables. I felt that, like them, I should know what those vegetables where, how to cook them and how to select the best ones.

Memories like these remind me of the food acculturation experiences of newly arrived migrants. They contrast sharply with the greater ease with which I now approach the markets and the farmers today. Through the years I have come to appreciate the freshness, the flavors, and even the dirt hiding in the lettuce found at farmers markets. Yet, despite the proximity and appreciation for them, I confess that I don’t frequent them as much as I should. The Saturday visit described above is not part of a weekly or usual routine. While the close proximity to Union Square is convenient, it also serves as a constant reminder that I can do better with my food dollars. I confess: More often than not, my groceries come delivered in a truck (another aspect of the “New York” experience). Convenience often trumps my intentions to “eat local and think global.” The guilt that accompanies these realizations are a reminder of how everyday life difficulties influence daily negotiations between convenience and the implicit morality of our food choices. These days“local” is another adjective added to food implying (mistakenly at times) that it is “good”, or “virtuous”. Yet, perhaps the answer lies in moving beyond the “local” vs “global” debate, providing way to delicious compromises such as the almost local Saturday afternoon sancocho.

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[1] Photo from Treehugger (http://www.treehugger.com/slideshows/green-food/new-york-union-square-greenmarket-best-in-the-nation/#slide-top)

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Food security and healthy eating: Views from El Salvador

Food security is “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. The term was first coined in the 1970s, alongside global food crises, when hunger and malnutrition were front and center in the food and nutrition agenda internationally. As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this concept encompasses dimensions of availability, access and the biological utilization of food, for an “active and healthy life”. It seeks to include the quantitative aspects of food (“sufficient” food) along with the quality aspects (“safe and nutritious” food), with the latter being a relatively recent addition to the concept.

Things have changed since the 1970s. Under- and over-nutrition coexist within many countries in the Global South, and in many cases within communities and households. Yet, while the food security concept has evolved, interventions, more often than not, still seek to provide “sufficient” food, which may not always be “safe and nutritious”.

The evolution of nutrition concerns alongside the changes in conceptualizations of food security motivated my research in El Salvador, and, in specific, a piece recently published in Perpectivas de Nutricion Humana. In the article, published in Spanish, I addressed the question, “Is healthy eating part of food security?” This question was discussed with individuals living in resource-poor communities in El Salvador, and the answer, not surprisingly, was not simple. Some research collaborators argued that as long as you had something to eat, even if it was only tortillas y frijoles, you were food secure, while others argued that this was not the case, as seen in these quotes below,

Comer saludable sí es tener seguridad alimentaria, no lo contrario. Si tiene el recurso económico, pero no tiene el conocimiento, va a comprar cualquier cosa para llenar el estómago
[To eat healthy is to have food security, but not the contrary. If you have the economic resource, but not the knowledge, you will buy anything to fill your stomach]

No todo lo que tenemos de seguridad alimentaria es nutritivo, pero sí lo básico tiene que estar en el hogar para la seguridad alimentaria. Más tarde, compramos otras cosas, que son el complemento para la alimentación nutricional
[Not everything that we have for food security is nutritious, but the basics have to be in the home to attain food security. Later, we buy other things, which are complementary for nutritious eating]

While nutrition knowledge and economic access are essential for families to eat healthfully, this expected rational behavior is confounded when foods considered healthy are also associated with states of food deprivation, and foods seen as unhealthy and even dangerous, are associated with increased purchasing power and a higher socioeconomic status.

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This juxtaposition of health values against pleasure, convenience and social status needs to be acknowledged and address in policy and programming implementation. There is still a long road to tackle what seems to be the unsolvable issue of persisting hunger and food insecurity in the global south, we must not turn a blind eye to the growing and perhaps more difficult issue of “over-nutrition”.

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Related post: “Some thoughts on eating healthy

Local chefs and Puerto Rican Cuisine

Arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, cuchifritos… These foods come to mind when describing Puerto Rican cuisine. Home cooked, simple dishes. Nothing fancy. These are foods that fill our stomachs and our souls. For many Puerto Ricans, these are to be eaten at home, lovingly made and served by mami or, even better, abuela. Therefore, Puerto Rican food is not to enjoy at a restaurant, and even less pay too much money for it– or is it?

Our cuisine is evolving. Rice, plantains, gandules, pork, and other classic food staples and ingredients are being recombined in creative ways, reinventing or reinterpreting traditional dishes that persist in our culinary memory…

Take for example these dishes from La Jaquita Baya (Miramar, PR). The traditional gandules and habichuelas colora’s are served alongside bite-size arepas. And the pastel? A smaller version, topped with salmorejo de jueyes and fresh greens.

Go south, to the center of the island, and you find Orujo Taller de Gastronomia in Caguas, PR. With this meal, my first time eating cuajitos, where the fattiness of the fried pig ears was balanced by pickled, fresh vegetables.  Also on the menu, slow, smoked pernil on top of the traditional fufu (mashed, sweet plantains).

And the list could go on…

These meals are just a sample of the new, emerging restaurants in Puerto Rico. The “heavy” elements of our cuisine (root crops, fried foods, pork) become “light(er)”, by being served in smaller, more flavorful portions. There are also greens, beyond the usual iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes. These meals value quality over quantity. The chefs behind these dishes are driven by a desire to elevate our cuisine. With these, they also demonstrate the many possibilities of traditional ingredients, while also seeking to revive almost forgotten ones from a not so distant past.

This ongoing “evolution” or “reinvention” comes hand in hand with an emerging movement back to the island agricultural roots, and a re-valuation of traditional island cuisine. Granted, this is by no means mainstream, and at times, it can be arrogant and pretentious, served with a side of bad service, as in the unfortunate case of this salad:

Green salad, unnamed restaurant (San Juan, PR)

Yet, these new restaurants challenge the ever expanding and conveniently located franchises, offering homogeneous, pre-packaged flavor, for a perceived (but not always) lower price. This role is key in the case of Puerto Rico, where palates are increasingly accustomed to artificial flavors and economic woes are part of everyday conversations. These new restaurants represent the growing entrepreneurship spirit on the island, inspired by a love of food, culture and el buen comer.

Buen provecho and support your local chef!

Returning from Puerto Rico

I start this post in the plane. A dozen of pasteles and six mallorcas sit inside a small suitcase in the overhead compartment, while a jar of acerola jam is wrapped and saved underneath, in my checked bag. I am flying back to my current address in the “big apple”, coming from my first home, la isla del encanto. I’ve just spent 18 days in Puerto Rico, splitting time between family, tourism and work- sometimes, lines blurring between the three.

A serendipitous meeting with a professor from the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey a few months ago landed me the opportunity to give a talk at this institution, where more than 10 years ago I started my studies in Biology, at the Rio Piedras campus. The seminar, titled “Talking about Food: The healthy, the pleasurable, and the complicated”, brought together my research in El Salvador and my current work in the Spanish Caribbean, aimed at starting a different conversation around eating, nutrition and well-being.

This talk coincided with my one year anniversary as a faculty fellow in the NYU Food Studies program. This relatively new, interdisciplinary approach has allowed me to delve deeper into the many complexities we face in the act of eating, moving beyond the study of “healthy eating” to addressing the significance of food in our daily lives. More specific, the role of food in the lives of those living away from “home”, like me. Food discourses have a deep-rooted influence of nutrition. More often than not, we value food in terms of calories, deconstructing foods and meals into quantifiable pieces, namely, fat, carbs, and protein. Yet, in our daily food experiences, eating is also a source of pleasure and memory, and food is also a vehicle for social interaction and economic development.

During these past 18 days in Puerto Rico, I ate, drank, laughed, swam, tanned, rested and worked. I had amazing meals, and not so great ones, made better by the company. I bring these memories with me, inside the food packed in the overhead compartment. I’ll gradually enjoy these mallorcas for breakfast, and the pasteles for lunch or dinner, along with rice, sometime during the week. The calories and nutrient content of these foods will not matter. They signify home. Consuming those honors the local hands that prepared them, and my mom, who loving bought these for me. The sweetness of the mallorca and the meatiness of the pastel will be intensified, in my palate, by the memories and the taste of home. In these future meals, food will be memory, and eating, an act of remembering.

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Foodways in everyday phrases: the case of the “cajitas”

Cogiste cajita.” “Bregaste cajita de pollo.” These are colloquial expressions from Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively. Both talk about a life event through a “cajita”, a small box. The two boxes have some commonalities. Both are small, made out of cardboard and used to hold food. Yet, more interesting are the differences…

I grew up listening to the phrase, “bregaste cajita ‘e pollo”. Luckily, the phrase was never directed at me, nor I’ve had to say that to anyone. To bregar, or deal with, a lo cajita de pollo refers to making a cheap move on someone, or to behave in a low and untrustworthy manner. The expression comes from the 99 cent box of fried chicken that used to be sold at local fast food establishment [1], or sometimes by Chinese restaurants. The meal was cheap at 0.99, but also of low quality, given the chicken’s low grade [1].

Cajita de Pollo

Not the actual cajita, but close. Photo source: https://yumfood.wordpress.com/tag/fried-chicken/

I learned about the Cuban cajitas recently, during a conversation with a research collaborator over and about Cuban food. He recalled these small cardboard boxes at family celebrations. Inside: croquetas, ensalada de coditos (macaroni salad) and a piece of cake. To “coger cajita”, or to get a cajita, is a symbol of reaching an opportunity or good fortune. 

The cajitas were used as a way to serve the buffet at birthdays, quinceañeros, and other celebrations. If you arrived early, you would usually get your cajita. Alas, if you were late, or not early enough, the cajitas would run out. Such unfortunate circumstance inspired another phrase, “llegaste tarde a la reparticion de cajitas” (you arrived late to the cajita distribution), symbolizing the loss of an opportunity. In the beginning, the cajitas would come with a plastic spoon taped to the lid. Later, the spoon disappeared and, instead, you would use a piece of cardboard. The cajitas, and later the cardboard “spoons”, were one of the many inventions that came with the Revolution [2,3]. I don’t think they are still used. Just like the also extinct 99 cent fried chicken box in Puerto Rico, the presence of the cajitas live in the collective memory and is expressed in the everyday lexicon of the population.

These two contrasting expressions, “Cojiste cajita” and “Bregaste cajita de pollo”, serve as an example of how quotidian phrases can say so much about people’s everyday relationship with food. Placing them side by side, a complete thesis can be written about the sharp differences in foodscapes that existed and continued to exists in these two sister islands. Like these phrases, there are many others that can be unpacked, analyzed and situated in the contexts of changing times, taste and foodways.

What is your favorite food-related expression? 

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[1] Source: http://www.wikiwalo.com/?p=88
[2] Source: http://cubamaterial.com/blog/sin-categoria/la-institucionalizacion-del-invento-las-cajitas/
[3] See more on the Cuban cajitas here: http://www.juventudrebelde.cu/columnas/lectura/2013-11-02/cogi-cajita/?page=2