Building a better future for food in Puerto Rico

By Rafael Diaz Torres
Angel Perez, a community development coordinator at VAMOS: “The ultimate goal is to help farmers start a small business where they can sell their products.” Ana María Abruña Reyes / Todas for Oxfam America

A network of gardens and orchards help women and families get more locally produced, affordable food.

With machete in hand, Ángel Pérez spent a Saturday morning in November working the soil near Puerto Rico’s capital. He joined two friends to start preparing an orchard in part of a densely populated, working-class neighborhood called Hill Brothers within the city of San Juan. For Pérez, the island’s urban geography is never an obstacle to growing fruits and vegetables. For him, all land is potentially good for building a better future for food in Puerto Rico.

Perez is a native of the northern coastal town of Arecibo, about an hour from San Juan. He’s also no stranger to the rural, more mountainous areas of the island to the south of Arecibo, where he works as a community development coordinator at an organization called VAMOS, one of Oxfam’s partners in Puerto Rico. VAMOS and Oxfam are helping farmers from some of the mountain towns take action on their concerns about the price and availability of fresh food on the island.

Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, which makes it expensive. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even more worrisome as people lose their jobs and income, making expensive food even harder to afford.

When Perez talks with people in these mountain towns, food is always a central topic. For that reason, VAMOS wants to teach communities how to develop their own orchards and vegetable gardens. “The ultimate goal is to help farmers start a small business where they can sell their products,” Pérez explains.” A farmer’s store will be located in one of Puerto Rico’s mountain towns on the island’s central region.”

For this initiative, farmers will also work with Bosque Modelo de Puerto Rico, an organization that promotes the protection of ecologically rich lands and the empowerment of citizens from 31 towns. Bosque Modelo also receives support from Oxfam.

A total of five communities will initially benefit from the program being developed by Pérez and his colleagues. It begins with training on how to prepare an orchard and vegetable garden. Farmers will also receive advice on how to sell their products locally.

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A handful of peppers, grown at the community garden in Adjuntas. Ana María Abruña Reyes / Todas for Oxfam America

For Bosque Modelo’s Community Development Coordinator, José Santos Valderrama, the partnership between his organization and Oxfam is a key component in strengthening the abilities of local communities to produce their own food.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been considering new strategies to deal with the problem of food insecurity. Oxfam contacted us with the idea of developing a proposal in which community participation is the central focus of the project,” Santos Valderrama said.

Promoting gender equity through rural projects

On an island where 43 percent of the people are living in poverty, women are disproportionately affected. Although about 12 percent of families in Puerto Rico are comprised of single women and children, 70 percent of women-headed households with children are living in poverty. And families in rural areas are more likely to be poor. With these grim statistics in mind, Santos Valderrama believes that integrating more women into the food projects sponsored by Bosque Modelo is a crucial part of his organization’s goal of advancing gender equity.

One of the community-based initiatives within the Bosque Modelo region that is led by women is the Centro Paz para Ti (Center Peace for You) organization. It’s in the mountain town of Adjuntas, about two hours from San Juan by narrow roads winding through heavily forested hills.

Centro Paz para Ti promotes empowerment through different local projects, including the development of a community garden and orchard inside the facilities of an abandoned school.

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A corner of the community garden in Adjuntas is devoted to herbs. Ana María Abruña Reyes / Todas for Oxfam America

“Women are encouraged to produce their own food, says Juana Cruz, 60, who lives in Adjuntas and volunteers at the community garden. “One of the ideas of the orchard is to encourage women to use this as a source of employment and a potential source of revenue,” she explained.

The women-led garden produces chili peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, anise, beans, orange, papaya, tamarind, and guava, among other fruits and vegetables.

“If more women join or create similar projects, something big could be accomplished in the future. This is a beautiful project. I’ve even made new friends at the Centro because we use our time for different activities and not just work. The orchard has a great importance to the community,” Cruz said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, women currently sell their products on FaceBook, where Centro Paz para Ti publishes promotional videos to encourage customers to buy products from the official pages of the local women entrepreneurs.

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