A hunger for solutions
Symposium on food security illuminates the public health dimension
By Richard Gutiérrez
More than being delightful and tasty, food is important for our survival and well-being, and while it may seem like there is an abundance of food on the planet for all of us to feast on, sometimes economic and societal situations can make food hard to get to or grow in the necessary quantities.
Puerto Rico imports most of its food instead of growing and raising it -- in fact, 80% of the food consumed on the island is imported. This in and of itself is a problem because if for whatever reason food can’t be shipped to the island for a period, that means Puerto Rico would be at an 80% disadvantage in terms of its food supply, and for a population of over 3 million people, that can be quite significant. There’s no need to go as far as a national catastrophe happening; often the day before a storm approaches, stores become flooded with people trying to grab as much non-perishable food as possible.
To discuss those and other issues, the Puerto Rico Food Bank hosted a symposium on island food security recently at the Sila M. Calderón Center for Puerto Rico in San Juan. The first panel took a critical look at poverty in Puerto Rico historically and how the island compares to other parts of the United States.
The first panel, which also defined what food security is and how exactly it relates to poverty, was hosted by Estela M. Reyes, director of advocacy at the Puerto Rico Youth Institute; Mari Jo Laborde, executive director of the Puerto Rico Food Bank; José Caraballo Cueto, a professor of business administration studies at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus; and Angela Díaz, executive director of the nonprofit Nurturing Puerto Rico. Díaz offered some rather interesting takes on food security on the island.
“There are diverse programs that are being created from universities and from communities themselves; there is a lot of investigation that is being done,” she told the STAR. “Nurturing Puerto Rico is also joining with initiatives that already exist at a federal and global level, to spotlight the subject of the food crisis.”
When it comes to public policy creation, Díaz believes there is a lot of room for growth.
“The reason why we need to do better in this department is because there are four dimensions to this situation: food availability, access to food, use and consumption of food, and the most important part being health, because currently we are suffering a health crisis on the island,” she said.
During the first panel, people who work for nonprofits and serve food to clients shared their experience of arriving at people’s houses to deliver food only to find that the people who have limited means for buying food have a 65-inch TV sitting in the living room. Does a portion of Puerto Rico’s population, then, lack a significant measure of financial literacy?
“It is a very common perception that we here in Puerto Rico don’t know how to properly choose what to do with our money; however, it is important to note that we don’t know the circumstances that each person is in,” Díaz said. “Culture and mental health are big factors that determine how a person behaves and eventually lead to people doing certain things.”
“We’ve been experiencing emergencies for six years in a row basically -- hurricanes, pandemic, earthquakes, you name it,” she added. “That stuff provokes a change in how we behave and what we eat. During recent years the basic food basket items in many communities have begun to change, because they don’t find the food items they were used to. Perhaps those food items have gotten more expensive as well, therefore they end up looking for substitutes for those food items. All of that in a sense is forcing people to behave differently as Puerto Ricans, as Caribbean islanders, who ate a specific number of things.”
Her capacity for empathy notwithstanding, Díaz does believe that knowledge of nutrition is something the island is currently lacking.
“We have very little knowledge about the effect food has on our bodies,” she said. “Fifty percent of Puerto Rico’s population has some sort of chronic disease. That already determines how people eat; sicknesses dictate how you should feed yourself. In the end there are many different factors that describe why a person eats something or why they choose one food over another. It is not as simple as many of us make it seem.”
Regarding agriculture on the island, Díaz believes “there are many projects on the island that are being done; perhaps they are small, however I would say there is a culture of emerging agriculture which is especially true for the younger generations. Young people are garnering interest in agriculture. The youth also have a larger environmental conscience; there is a greater awareness of what we eat and young people especially have a bigger interest in their health.”
Laborde, who heads the Puerto Rico Food Bank, said there are “three points that need to be taken into consideration when we talk about food security: One, it exists; two, it is in our hands to keep working for it; and three, collaborations.”
Nino Correa Filomena, Puerto Rico’s director of emergency management and disaster administration, shared some practical advice with the STAR on food security at the household level: “It is not wise to simply go to the supermarket the day before an atmospheric event and buy everything you need on the same day,” he said.
“Every time you go to the grocery store, buy some emergency food,” he said. “That way, whenever an emergency does happen, there is no need to rush to the supermarket at the last minute.”