IVETTE FELICIANO: For two years, Chief Paxx Moll has been preparing farm-to-table meals at the San Juan restaurant El Departamento de la Comida, which means “the department of food.”
When I cook, everyone is a VIP, Moll says. You give some of your soul and love to the person.
Moll works with a small network of Puerto Rican farmers for the restaurant’s organic, signature dishes, like their falafel-plantain fritters and coconut flatbread.
PAXX MOLL: I think its fresh food with Puerto Rican essence and it’s all locally grown, which makes it uber Puerto Rican.
Yet, getting quality ingredients from Puerto Rico is not easy. on the lush, tropical island, more than 85 percent of what people eat is imported. Seafood, meats and staples like rice and beans and coffee mostly come from the United States, neighboring Latin American countries and even China.
The main reason: Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector is dismal, representing less than one percent of the island’s gross domestic product.
CARLOS REYES-ALBINO: From California or China, in a ship, that goes to the Canal de Panama, to come here. That’s like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 weeks.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Carlos Reyes-Albino, one of the co-owners of the restaurant, says the island’s dependence on imports makes it dangerously vulnerable to any unforeseen event threatening its food supply.
CARLOS REYES-ALBINO: A catastrophe or something happen with the ships, what’s gonna happen to us?
In fact, Puerto Rico’s agricultural secretary warns the territory only has a one-month food supply on hand, so the government has implemented a plan to redevelop the island’s agricultural sector, including providing farmers with subsidies and new equipment. Already in the last two years, Puerto Rico has seen a 25 percent increase in agriculture revenues and 6,500 new jobs.
The restaurant El Departmento de la Comida is also trying to engage more local farmers.
DANIEL CADENAS: There’s a lot of variety here there’s anon, there’s grapefruit.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Farmer Daniel Cadenas has been providing the restaurant with organic produce for two years.
DANIEL CADENAS: I think it’s really positive what they’re doing, because they’re helping promote what is the agriculture in Puerto Rico.
Cadenas splits his time between his family’s medical billing business and their 25-acre farm in the town of Carolina, about 20 miles outside of San Juan. He hopes more people in Puerto Rico will see farming in a new light.
DANIEL CADENAS: I think it’s very important that people get back to their roots and they learn how to deal with the land and how to grow their own produce. We kind of have lost that or have not done enough of it, and we can definitely produce our own and won’t have to depend on an outside supply.
The shortage of locally grown food here results from a decline in farming and social stigma. Sugar was the dominant crop, but the grueling and low-paying work on mostly American-owned plantations gave rise to the term, “jibaro,” for peasant, a word synonymous with ignorance and poverty.
CARLOS REYES-ALBINO: About poverty, about having people from other places owning our lands. We got the problem that our culture looks at the agriculture too as the sugar cane.
IVETTE FELICIANO: An international collapse in sugar prices after World War II led Puerto Rico to focus more on industrialization. Today, the island uses a quarter of its agricultural land.
The folks at the restaurant El Departamento de la Comida say they’ll continue to do their small part to get Puerto Rico on track to a sustainable future in food.
CARLOS REYES-ALBINO: We got this slogan it goes, you lost agriculture you lost the society because agriculture is the first step in every kind of society.