By Jason Von Kundra from Sprouting Hope in Marion, VA
Written on the wall at a cattle farm just outside Havana is “Las Ideas Pueden Mas Que Las Armas,” or “Ideas Are Greater Than Weapons.” With a long history of conflict between the US and Cuba, it may seem an unlikely place for the United States to turn to for ideas but Cuba could hold the key to solving our broken food system. While we make unhealthy processed foods affordable through a complex system of food subsidies and large-scale distribution, Cuba does the exact opposite by making fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs the most affordable, leaving the unhealthy processed food a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. But how?
The US blockade effectively prevented any foreign corporation who did business in the United States from doing business in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost access to fossil fuels and many other goods. No oil meant no food and very little options for imports. Cuba went through the Special Period, a difficult time when the average Cuban lost about twenty pounds due to food shortages.
Out of necessity, they pulled together to start growing their own food without fossil fuels. Former state-owned sugar farms that were used for exports quickly transitioned to UBPCs (Basic Units of Cooperative Production) which are autonomous agricultural cooperatives that helped feed the country through small scale local food systems. With this history, Cuba places great value in food sovereignty and organic agriculture today.
Cuba’s two currency system is also largely responsible for why produce is affordable and processed foods are expensive. The peso nacional is used to purchase necessities and other standard goods that are primarily produced domestically through a planned economy. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is used to buy imports and for the tourist economy. Most Cubans get all the food they need at Farmers’ Market paying very affordable prices with the peso nacional. At Supermarkets, processed food may be purchased with the more expensive CUC. The average Cuban working on a state salary makes about 20 CUCs a month and a can of Pringles costs 4.50 CUCs!
The US food system is the opposite. According to the Washington Post “taxpayers heavily subsidize corn and soy, two crops that facilitate the meat and processed food we’re supposed to eat less of, and do almost nothing for the fruits and vegetables we’re supposed to eat more of. If there’s any obligation to spend the public’s money in a way that’s consistent with that same public’s health, shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
In my previous blog I discussed the importance of involving poor communities. With our current food system, the poor are affected the most by expensive healthy food and cheap processed food. Now that Cuban-US relations are thawing, we can look to Cuba as an example for a food system prioritizing public healthy and a better future.
Jason visited Cuba in November 2013 on a delegation for organic agriculture and cooperatives organized by Via Organica, the Center for Global Justice, and the Center for Martin Luther King Jr. in Havana.