In Puerto Rico, a women-led fruit and vegetable garden provides opportunities to fight hunger and build independence.
Eight years ago, the government of Puerto Rico closed one of the few public schools in the mountain town of Adjuntas. In the process, surrounding communities also lost a small orchard and vegetable garden that provided fresh produce for local families.
But a determined group of women rescued the facilities in 2018 and turned them into the Centro Paz para Ti (Center Peace for You) organization. They re-established the fruit and vegetable garden to help families secure more fresh, affordable, locally produced food.
“This tamarind was grown by one of our volunteers,” Group Coordinator Alana Feldman Soler says, showing visitors the garden while explaining that participants also produce chili peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, anise, beans, orange, papaya, and guava.
Feldman Soler says food is one of the Centro’s main concerns. Once their community garden was fully operating—beginning March 2019—the women established a monthly farmers market at which more than 100 of them sold their own products through December. Given COVID-19, this monthly market is now virtual, and the women are selling products on their Facebook pages.
Despite the shift to online sales, Feldman Soler says the Centro is still concentrating on helping women grow and sell food, as well as growing their own self-confidence.
Learning to be an entrepreneur is part of the process, and the Centro also teaches women to make and sell handicrafts. Katherine Escribano is one of the participants who enjoys the experience of gathering with other women at the market on the last Sunday of every month.
“I started selling jewelry manufactured by others. However, with the support of the Centro, I participated in workshops to become certified as a craftswoman,” she says. “Now I sell knitted products of my own creation.”
All the buildings used by the Centro rely completely on solar energy. The equipment was installed by women who completed a training course taught by the Bosque Modelo organization and made possible by Oxfam, Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, and other partners.
Helping women grow more food and gain some economic independence also helps women in other ways, Feldman Soler says. “We also stress women’s emotional independence.”
There are few community-based organizations that serve women in Puerto Rico’s central mountainous region, she says. Women in this part of Puerto Rico are feeling the effects of a prolonged economic crisis, a massive hurricane in 2017, and multiple earthquakes in early 2020. Steady employment for many women was already a challenge, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, many more women have lost their jobs.
Loss of jobs and income have made food—85 percent of which is imported and already expensive—even harder to purchase for women-headed household lacking a reliable income and with children to feed. On an island where more than 40 percent of the population is living in poverty, the poverty rate hits closer to 70 percent for women-headed households with children.
Many of the poorest women on Puerto Rico were already experiencing forms of domestic violence before the pandemic hit. The combination of isolation, lack of economic resources, and limited local services contributes to an estimated 2,500 annual reported cases of gender violence on the island (about 325 were in Utuado, the region that includes Adjuntas). Movement restrictions and other aspects of the pandemic have made this problem even worse for many struggling to survive.
In addition to helping women grow their own food to eat and earn money, Feldman Soler says they talk about gender violence as a way to make the problem more visible and encourage women to get help. “For example, if we learn how to make hors d'oeuvres, while doing that task we are also talking about the cycle of domestic violence,” she says, “because everyone needs to be aware of that problem.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the volunteers within the organization have visited families in need to give them food, sanitizer, and masks. A nurse who collaborates with the organization is also currently working with 150 families from nearby communities.
In 2019, between 10 and 50 women participated in each of the workshops sponsored by the Centro. However, since the start of the pandemic, the number of face-to-face participants has been reduced to a handful of women who gather in a big outdoors area within the organization’s property.
“The Centro has never closed,” Feldman Soler said. “Many women told us that staying at their homes was having a negative impact on their mental health. We have adjusted to the new [COVID-19] realities.”
A model garden
Community gardens like the one in Adjuntas are serving as a model for a project just getting underway that will establish five similar growing areas and a retail store for selling produce. Bosque Modelo and VAMOS, two organizations working with funds from Oxfam, will carry out the project and provide training for women participants and help set up the garden network.
When the pandemic winds down (hopefully soon), more women like Escribano will gather and harvest the benefits of the project. She finds her time at the Centro Paz para Ti a comfort in times of uncertainty.
“This is a therapy to many of us,” she says. “The moment we leave our homes and visit the Centro, we feel we can potentially help another person.”