On Cuba’s ration book (from Repeating Islands)

Like many things in Cuba, food is a complicated subject. Variety is lacking, yet Cubans have an assured minimum food supply through the “libreta” – the Cuban ration book. The libreta was implemented after the 1959 Cuban Revolution as a way to equalize all citizens through food. In the beginning, the libreta covered most necessities. With time, items have been gradually eliminated from the libreta. Today, the libreta is used for bare necessities, prompting Cubans to supplement through the regular market. Moreover, there are ongoing conversations regarding phasing out the libreta, and replacing it with a more targeted safety net program. While the subject is not yet settled – changes will come sooner or later. This post from Repeating Islands provide an updated take on current debates on the faith of the libreta.

Repeating Islands

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A report by Hector Velasco for the Agence France Presse.

From one end of the island to the other, every Cuban can be sure of one thing: Their ration book, or “libreta,” will put at least the basics on their table at dinner time. When President Raul Castro tried several years back to do away with this enduring symbol of both equality and scarcity, he failed.

Next February, Castro, younger brother of the late revolutionary leader Fidel, will step down, and there is little sign that the ration book will go anywhere before he does.

Behind his failed effort was the major challenge facing whoever takes over running the Communist island once he steps down: how to open up the economy without a return to capitalism?

Is the ration book the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution, or its most inefficient burden? The booklet encapsulates two very different views…

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Food fads implications: The case of the Avocado

Avocados seem to be everywhere nowadays. Today, they are eaten at every meal, including breakfast (or brunch). The avocado can now serve as a bowl for your meal or a bun for your BLT. And yes, of course you could also wrap avocado in bacon!

You can do more than just eating the avocado. Its shell can be used as a cup for your latte, as first demonstrated by an Australian coffee shop, which first featured such “creation” as a joke on Instagram.

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Melbourne’s Truman Cafe’s Avocado Latte (From: The Telegraph, “‘It’s literally coffee in a piece of rubbish’: Are Avocado lattes the latest hipster coffee trend?”)

The avocado craze has also resulted in an avocado bar (not surprisingly located in Brooklyn!) called the Avocaderia…which actually ran out of avocados on opening day. Topping the “avocado latte” and the Avocaderia, the fruit was also recently featured in the news as a weapon for idiotic, irate bodega customers in New York City! (If interested, you can see the so called “Avocado Assault” here). The list of interesting and over the top uses of avocados can go on. But let’s instead go back to the origins of the fruit, and the potential implications of this avocado trend…

Avocados are native to the Americas – particularly Central Mexico, in Puebla. Fossil evidence suggest humans have been enjoying this fruit since 10,000 BC. The avocado is actually a berry, from the  Lauracea flowering tree family.

Avocados are rich in “good fats”. These fatty fruits are also an excellent source of fiber and other nutrients, including B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, vitamin E and vitamin C. Because of their high fat content, they can also be satiating, and provide a delicious mouth feel to any meal. Such profile has increase the demand for avocados in recent years, much beyond the usual guac and chips at your favorite Mexican place.

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Avocado farms in the mountains of Michoacán (From: Blue Channel 24, “Rising avocado prices fuelling illegal deforestation in Mexico” (includes video)

Much like other recent food fads, such as the craze for sushi and quinoa (see end of post for more information), the increased appetite for avocado does not come without consequence. As noted in a 2016 piece by Associated Press in the New York Post, our avocado obsession translates into deforestation and other social consequences in neighboring Mexico. The high demand for avocados leads to increased production, at the expense of pine forests in Mexico. Avocado production also takes up water resources that previously benefited the flora and fauna of the area. Moreover, beyond production, avocados also take up resources for packaging and transport, including wood, further contributing to the deforestation. Aside from environmental concerns, avocado production is also linked to the drug cartel, as reported in a 2016 article in The Guardian,

It’s a moot point whether the Mexicans who actually grow these on-trend fruits eventually harvest their fair share of the economic benefits. This lucrative trade is increasingly controlled by a drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). So when you buy a Mexican avocado, a greedy share of revenue may well accrue to criminals.

The same piece further underscores how the issue is not easily resolved by avoiding Mexican avocados. Other producers, such as those in Chile, Peru and Dominican Republic, do not have better or more sustainable practices. As noted in the same article,

The fact of the matter is that we know pitifully little about the environmental and working conditions of faceless people in faraway places who grow fruit for our tables, but I have seen enough of foreign fruit “farms” to suspect the worst. Fields of abysmally low-paid, often migrant workers who toil and live day-in-day-out in a trashed environment amid polluted water courses and pesticides; the latter decaying workers’ fingernails from dipping saplings into chemicals.

Sadly, similar working conditions may also be found in California farms, as well as the environmental effect of the water-loving fruit – that is close to almonds as “top water guzzling crops“.

Living in Puerto Rico, avocados were easy to come by, grown in someone’s backyard, or bought on the side of the road from a local farmer. I did not give a second thought to where the avocado was coming from. They were also tastier (and bigger) than the imported variety I am now buying in New York City. The quick research I present here makes me value every single avocado I eat, and think twice before falling for the silly food fads that are becoming more common each day. In this globalized world, we need to think of our food choices beyond how they benefit our health and taste buds, to think about how they can affect the communities that fulfill our ever increasing demand for these special foods.

Interested in learning more? Here is some more food for thought on how other recent food trends have had unseen social and environmental consequences: