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Last week, Puerto Rico managed to make a $354 million payment on $72 billion worth of bond debt, which the government says it cannot pay off. Officials hope that boosting the agriculture sector will help dig the island out of its economic hole, but first it must solve its looming food crisis. NewsHours Ivette Feliciano reports.
For two years, Chef 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's a VIP, moll says. You give some of your soul and love to the person.
"cuatro libras de habichuelas, 15 quesos"
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.
"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 this 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.
"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?"
Carlos Reyes-Albino, a former co-owner of the restaurant, says the island's dependence on imports makes it dangerously vulnerable to any unforeseen event threatening its food supply.
"A catastrophe or something happen with the ships, what's gonna happen to us?"
In October, a Puerto Rico-bound cargo ship from Florida- El Faro- sank during a hurricane, costing the lives of 33 crew-members and also the loss of 70 containers of food.
In fact, right now, Puerto Rico's Agriculture 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 24% increase in agriculture revenues and 65 hundred new jobs.
The restaurant El Departamento de la Comida is also trying to engage more local farmers.
"There's a lot of variety here there's anon, there's grapefruit…"
Farmer Daniel Cadenas has been providing the restaurant with organic produce for two years.
"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.
"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 also synonymous with ignorance and poverty.
"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."
An international collapse in sugar prices after World War II led Puerto Rico to focus more on industrialization. Today, the island uses less than a third 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.
"We got this slogan it goes, you lost agriculture you lost the society because agriculture is the first step in every kind of society. "
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