You Are What You Grow

by Julie Kurtz

Imagine, if you will, that the U.S. was stripped of all its powerful agricultural fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization. Imagine that we were cut off from international trade imports. In Cuba they didnt have to imagine. They lived it. AFE students Julie Kurtz, Tessa Salzman and Jamie Fanous traveled to Cuba in January 2017 to find out what lessons the U.S. food system might learn from Cuba. One surprising lesson? If you want to change American diets, talk to a Midwest corn farmer…

8:30 am, January 5th. After three hours waiting at the Havana bus station (for a bus that never arrived), I cracked: I needed breakfast. I walked to a corner café down the block and scanned the extensive menu.

“Do you have anything with vegetables?” I ask, aware that a heavy Cubano (ham and cheese) sandwich would destroy my stomach. It was a wonder that a society facing food shortages still remained committed to Cubano sandwiches. The resource inputs required to raise pigs and produce cheese exponentially exceed those needed to grow beans, grains, fruits and vegetables. I settle for the only produce on the menu: canned mushrooms. Undoubtedly imported.

Jamie Fanous, Tessa Salzman and I traveled to Cuba in January 2017 to research the Cuban food system. We interviewed farmers, academics and other food system leaders, as well as casually conversing with Cubans on the street, in taxis and in transport. The Tisch Civic Engagement Fund and the Friedman Agriculture-Food-Environment (AFE) Department helped fund our field research. We hoped Cuba’s history might offer lessons for American nutritionists and farmers about how best to feed a population without the costly environmental and health externalities associated with the U.S. food system.

Cuba has earned fame across the globe for its transition to agroecological practices. Unlike America’s more gradual movements toward sustainable small-scale farming practices, Cuban organic farming was a result of violent economic and caloric shock. In 1962, when Cuba was producing over 6,000 metric tons of sugar annually (Dominguez 2012), the U.S. embargo stripped the island of its major sugar markets. Fortunately for the Cuban economy, the Soviet Union became their new customer. Their new communist partner imported the bulk of Cuban sugar, which represented 80-90% of its merchandise exports (Dominguez 2012), in exchange for a variety of goods that made Cuban life possible: petroleum products (including fertilizers and pesticides), machinery, food. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 dealt a blow to the Cuban economy and its people. With nowhere to exchange their sugar, Cuban food imports plummeted, leaving thousands hungry. In addition, domestic production of food suffered in the absence of Soviet fertilizers and pesticides. Ninety miles south of Miami, an island of people starved.

This bout of deprivation, named the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ by the Cuban State, lasted into the mid-1990s. During the Special Period, Cuban caloric intake fell by nearly 30% (Dominguez, 2005). In response to a starving people and a lack of fertilizer imports, the Cuban government was forced to make major agricultural reforms. Cuba looked to traditional farmers who had maintained agronomic practices when most of Cuban “went industrial”; it was evident that small, independent famers were more productive in the absence of agrichemicals. Thus, the Cuban state divided idle lands and former sugar plantations into smaller plots—government land that could be leased for free and managed by small-scale farmers. Mother necessity gave birth to incredible innovation: Cuban agricultural scientists, many studying the practices of traditional farmers, dedicated themselves to improving soils and productivity without petroleum inputs. Tractors were replaced by oxen and horses. Pesticides were replaced by intercropping and crop rotation. Cuban agroecology was born, and it spread through a dedicated group of farmers and agronomists who envisioned a better world for Cubans—one rooted in agrarian health.

Based on this powerful history of Cuban organic agriculture, my colleagues and I expected to see a nation covered in small farms during our visit to Cuba, with produce markets on every corner. But finding fresh vegetables and fruit was a chore. For middle and lower-class Cubans, the struggle is more severe; increased tourism has driven up food costs, making some products inaccessible and scarce in the market. As the New York Times reported, tourists are literally “eating food off Cubans’ plates.”

So what happened? With this fairytale story of organic agriculture, and an entire industry around “agri-tourism,” how are Cubans still going hungry? Still plagued with diabetes? Still depleting and salinizing their soils?

While journalism and farm tours tout the wonders of the Cuban agricultural miracle, Professor Armando Fernando Loriano of the University of Havana maintains that “agroecology is still the minority” in Cuban farms. In our interview with him, he described agriculture as a “huge cultural challenge.” The mentality is still structured around huge farms, like the sugar plantations of Cuba’s colonial history. Loriano’s concerns were echoed by other agronomists and farmers we interviewed. In addition to further government reforms to promote small-scale farms and decentralize the food system, “a cultural re-visioning is needed to move away from large farms.”

The agroecological challenges of Cuba manifest in the Cuban diet. “Diets are still slave-oriented” explained Professor Loriano. Sugar and pork are still king and queen. This is no surprise considering the national ration system (which entitles all Cubans to an essential food basket) guarantees ten pounds of sugar per month—that’s double the rice and bean allocation (Garth 2008). During the Special Period, chef Nitza Villapol, called the “Julia Child of the Caribbean,” was famous for her weekly cooking show—the longest-airing program ever on Cuban television. As smart as her cooking was savory, Nitza Villapol recognized the dual crisis of health and agricultural resources. She taught Cubans to remake traditional Cuban dishes, but replace the meat (which became inaccessible during the Special Period) with other flavors and other sources of protein. Nitza Villapol helped Cubans cope with the changes in the food system during the Special Period. Throughout her career she strove to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into Cuban cooking, but despite her fame and influence, she lamented the uphill battle:“I’ve tried for 30 years to change the Cuban diet. Cuba has a sweet tooth” (Miller 1992).

I posit that we take the phrase “You are what you eat” and follow it upstream to the fields where that food is grown. Collectively, as a society, we are what we grow. Cuba is a sugar-eating, sugar-growing country. Similarly, U.S. states that grow primarily commodity crops have state diets dominated by commodities, as compared with more diversified agricultural states like Vermont, California and Massachusetts (CDC 2013). In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies percentage of acres dedicated to fruit and vegetable production as one of the main contributing factors that supports state fruit and vegetable consumption.

The millions of acres of corn and soy far oversupply U.S. food and fuel needs, yet in this nation that exports over half the food we grow, we grow less than half of the necessary vegetable acreage to satisfy the USDA Nutrition Guidelines. To meet the Guidelines, vegetable consumption would need to increase 31% and diversify, and legume consumption would have to increase by 431% (Buzby 2006). Our values on farms trickle straight onto our plates. For Friedman Nutrition Communication Masters Candidates, this means that convincing consumers to change their habits is only part of the battle; the other part is convincing corn farmers to grow a salad bar.

Just as Cuba needs to amplify the policy and economic structures that support the agroecology farms supplying their produce, U.S. farmers need additional support to begin supplying our plates with the sufficient quantity of vegetables, fruits and legumes that the Friedman School valiantly recommends. And perhaps the phrase you are what you eat deserves a second thought. In Cuba, like the U.S., we are what we grow. 

Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2011
Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2011

Julie Kurtz is in her 2nd year of the AFE and MPH program, and is dedicated to health from the soil and farmworkers, up. She landed at Friedman after acting professionally in San Francisco, practicing Emergency Medicine in Minnesota, and farming in Bolivia.

  • Buzby, J. C., Wells, H. F., & Vocke, G. (2006). Possible implications for US agriculture from adoption of select dietary guidelines. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2013. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Dominguez, J.I. (2005). Cuba’s Economic Transition: Successes, Deficiencies, and Challenges. In Shahid Javed Burki and Daniel P. Erikson (eds) Transforming Socialist Economies: Lessons for Cuba and Beyond. New York: Palgrave, pp. 10–34.
  • Domínguez, J. I. (Ed.). (2012). Cuban economic and social development: Policy reforms and challenges in the 21st century. Massachusetts: Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
  • Garth, H. (2014). “They Started to Make Variants” The Impact of Nitza Villapol’s Cookbooks and Television Shows on Contemporary Cuban Cooking. Food, Culture & Society17(3), 359-376.
  • Miller, T. (1992). Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba. New York: Anthenum Books.
  • Wells, H. F., & Buzby, J. C. (2008). Dietary assessment of major trends in US food consumption, 1970-2005. Washington: US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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