What Cuba can teach us about food sustainability in the time of COVID-19
By early May, COVID-19 had already killed more than 70,000 Americans. Amid the loss of life and suffering around the world during the pandemic, the virus has also disrupted the patterns of the global economy, including the food-supply chain.
Here, Americans rushed to stock up on food and supplies as the gravity of the pandemic began to sink in. Food that was usually bought per product was being wiped clean from the supermarket shelves in bulk causing shortages. Meanwhile, food suppliers were throwing away tons of food that they couldn’t get to market as the supply chain — from agricultural workers to processors to delivery services to consumers — broke down.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility and, in some cases, the inequity of our vast food infrastructure. Farmworkers and food processing plant workers — often among our most vulnerable working-class populations — work in close quarters for low pay to put food on their tables. They are at greater health and safety risk than most of us.
The impact of the pandemic on food supply and distribution chains has led to a discussion about more sustainable ways to put get food sources closer to home. Lessons can come from unlikely places and one place we might want to look is Cuba, a country that has long been cut off from the global economy due to decades of U.S. sanctions, but which has adapted and evolved in ways that could teach us some things.
One of former President Barack Obama’s last acts was to open the U.S. embassy to Cuba, which allowed direct travel to the country for the first time in years. My father immediately bought tickets to go in early June and I got to visit the country in the summer of 2016. As our departure date grew closer, my anxiety about the trip increased. From my history courses in high school and through what I’d read in the news, I knew of Cuba as a poor, Communist country run by a dictator. It had a stigma about it and I wondered what we were getting into by visiting it. The trip was eye-opening. Although the people who live there are poor by our standards, they were the most resourceful and sustainable people I’d ever seen. There was much to learn about their past as to why.
Every morning, the family that ran the casa particular (bed and breakfast) where we stayed in Havana greeted us with a breakfast of freshly made juice, cut fruit, an egg, and toast. They even gave us coffee and since then Cuban coffee is the only coffee I’ll ever drink. The fruits were fresh and full of flavor. Every morning we ate this and felt energized till our next meal.
Havana is a city stuck in time. The pathways are made from bricks, the buildings have beautiful architecture and there are many people selling goods and guiding tourists to their stands. The street life is full of people enjoying each other’s company, reading, painting — there is rarely a phone in sight.
We stayed close to the town square and mostly walked from place to place, but many times we also took a taxi to different places. What was most interesting about their taxi services was that the cars weren’t your generic yellow cabs. They were often 1950’s cars that have been refurbished and fixed. These cars are often built on makeshift parts from other cars and from parts made out of wood covered in aluminum, or hard plastic when rubber becomes sparse. The key is that taxi drivers are extremely resourceful. We learned this by speaking to a man who drove us around the city.22
Following our stay in Havana, we traveled down to a small pueblo town called Trinidad. The town is known for being traditional, including the infrastructure. When we would venture out in the town on its pebble stone paths, we’d often come across produce stands full of vegetables and fruit. When my family and I were feeling restless, we would walk outside and visit the fruit stand placed conveniently near our casa particular.
My father and mother spoke to the fruit vendor and asked him how he was able to gather all these fruits. My father, Marcos Estrada, and my mother, Connie Ornelas, spoke to him in Spanish fluently. The vendor said that “the fruit was collected from the outskirts of town, and the fruit selection was always different every few months because of the seasons.
The fruit stand operator was shocked that we traveled from the U.S. and was happy to show us more about the produce development in Trinidad. We made our way down the streets to a more open area where there was a large patch of land dedicated to a garden. Suddenly, I was, standing in a field of flowering habichuelas (green beans), corn, yucca, and much more.
“This is a communal garden where people from the neighborhoods can grow their own food. We have an understanding of what grows best for us each season, so right now our focus is green beans”
As I explored the lot with my parents, I realized that I had never been to a community garden. Where I live was probably one of the most forward-looking states, yet we are still far behind in practicing sustainability. California throws away nearly 6 million tons of food waste each year, and that represents about 18 percent of the material that goes into landfills. This leaves 4.7 million adults and two million children that live in low-income households affected by food insecurity. As of 2019, the city of Los Angeles has about 1,429,000 adults and 573,000 children who are affected — nearly half of the city’s population.
Dr. Jose Ortega, a professor within the Department of History of Whittier College, shared a few sources that discussed the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of agriculture in Cuba. “Cuba’s inward-looking development policies: Towards sustainable agriculture (1990–2008)” discussed how Cuba lost three of its major overseas markets in the span of three years.
Sugarcane farms, for which the Soviet Union was the primary buyer, collapsed and became vacant. Cuban foreign trade fell 75 percent, agricultural production fell 54 percent, and levels of food consumption fell 39 percent. Cuban’s daily calorie intake fell from 2,600 in 1986, to 1,000–1,500 in 1993. Imports decreased to 50 percent within those three years as well.
Exports were the only connection to the international markets on which the island was dependent and they declined 67 percent after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA), the American trade embargo against Cuba, prohibited sales to Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of American companies, which during the period 1980–1992 alone exported $2.6 billion and imported $1.9 billion to/from Cuba.
The fall of the Soviet and the United States-led trade embargo put Cuba in an economic situation worse than the Great Depression. In response, the Cuban government declared the “Special Period in Peacetime”, shifting the country from dependence on international trade to more domestic development.
This program rationed food, fuel, and electricity and gave priority to domestic food production and tourism. “Sustainable development: The path to economic growth in Cuba”, an executive summary written by Caitlyn Davis and Ted Piccone, states that, “The Cuban government began encouraging sustainable agriculture during the Special Period of the 1990s to increase production as Cuba’s land tenure laws advanced.”
When the development began, the Cuban farmers had to completely disregard fertilizers as it was a scarce resource. By producing compost and other growing mediums, with the addition of proper irrigation, they eventually saw improvements in yield. They used plants that control the action of harmful insects. In 1995, Havana had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. With Cuba’s climate, crops prospered and lasted all year round. They were able to produce lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach, and peppers that were traded.
When we asked how the garden came to be, the man who owned the urban farm in Trinidad said, “Russia fell. They were a primary source of trade because of the [U.S] embargo. So, when that collapsed it really impacted the island economically. The country was trying to figure out how to sustain themselves without [Russia’s] help. So they decided to use the plots of land that were empty to build community gardens to grow food.”
“Russia fell, they were a primary source of trade because of the embargo, so when that collapsed it really impacted the island economically. The country was trying to figure out how to sustain themselves without their help. So they decided to use the plots of land that were empty to build community gardens to grow food.”
Along with urban gardening, Cuba has also moved towards more sustainable practices by making it illegal to eat red meat on the island. Cows were solely for milk production. The red meat that is okay to eat is when a cow is too old to produce milk or is sick.
We learned this on our travel down to Cienfuegos, a town known for its coffee and sugar cane production. There, as with every town in Cuba, meat markets sell fresh meat. With the lack of refrigeration, though, smaller meat sellers often gather orders a day before and only process what is ordered for the next day. In Cuba, the primary sources of meat are pork and chicken, which expel much lower amounts of greenhouse gas-producing methane into the environment.
Cuba was forced to become more sustainable out of necessity. The crisis the country went through in the ’90s has had a huge impact on its urban food production and food waste that can provide lessons for we in California and the U.S. as we face this crisis. Forced to socially isolate (no international trade) decades ago, Cuba learned to survive.
By the end of our trip, my family had lost a collective 25 pounds. The amount of exercise and consumption of healthy foods we ate helped us become healthier. Once we were back in California, our bodies had to adjust back to the greasy, and unhealthy foods that are staples even in what we consider healthy diets.
Cuba’s history and ways of life have taught me a lot about how California is going through similar events. COVID-19 has brought businesses to a halt and raised the specter of food shortages. Our agriculture ,mkio9and meat industry’s production could be affected for months more if not longer.
Urban farming can provide a lot of environmental, social, and health benefits. With COVID-19, we can see how California can benefit from urban agriculture to reduce food insecurity and waste that has been very apparent in the last couple of months. It is important to still keep conscious of the environment and its effects on the community during a pandemic. As food becomes an issue of availability, urban agriculture can be a good solution
Foods we depended on being transported from places such as Bakersfield can be accessed in urban gardens. Urban gardens can help minority and working-class groups gain better access to quality foods. Access to quality food is limited in low-income communities where there are 32.7% fewer supermarkets than high-income areas.
The city of Oakland has set aside plots for urban farming that statistically produces a similar amount of food to an average farmer in Cuba. Cities that have “food deserts”, areas in which food is not attainable for more than 100 miles, should make the effort to give a few acres of underdeveloped land for purposes like this.
Urban farming can be further developed with vertical in-house farming. Vertical farming is a tactic in which plants are grown upon one another with artificial lighting. Vertical farming can produce international foods like bananas, corn, and mangoes that are usually imported from abroad. We can even use vertical farming to farm in confined spaces such as old shipping containers or roll-off dumpsters. The US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy agree that vertical farming provides solutions to solving food insecurity.
Of course, we don’t just have to change our mindset about food production, there are also policy restrictions about what types of food we can raise in urban settings. For example, the City of Whittier requires you to have permits to farm certain types of animals, vegetables, and fruits. Other municipalities such as Pico Rivera, Pomona, and Rancho Palos Verdes give more leeway. As California progresses on urban agriculture, dense cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are working on utilizing urban farming. But, what about the suburban cities and towns? If we have the space to grow food, even as small as the patches of grass next to the sidewalk, then why not?
On our first night in Cuba, we shared a home-cooked meal made by the family in whose home we were staying. There were two Cuban avocados the size of my head, a pitcher of fruit juice, a bowl of rice and black beans mixed together, and one chicken for all of six of us. It didn’t seem like that much on the table, but it turned out to be more than enough for all of us there. On top of that, the food was delicious — fresh and healthy.
The lessons offered by Cuba, which only recently went through a period more challenging than the Great Depression, offers hope for our futures during this dark time.