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Equitable Food Oriented Development Case Study: El Departamento de la Comida, Puerto Rico

Published: June 2023
Authors: Denise Rebeil, Jennifer Zuckerman, Deborah Hill (Duke WFPC)

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Executive Summary

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. Geographically located in the hurricane belt, Puerto Rico is subject to routine natural disasters. The political position of Puerto Rico first under Spanish colonial rule and then under commonwealth status of the United States have negatively impacted the island through a history of extractive policy and disaster capitalism.

This case study of El Departamento de la Comida (El Depa) highlights the assets of the people and the land in Puerto Rico. It speaks to the power of connection, of relationship, and of adaptability. It names both what it is and what can be through localized food systems, led by and accountable to the people they serve.

El Depa works to build food sovereignty, local resilience, and to improve nutrition and food access through innovative, community-responsive, market-focused strategies. El Depa’s work over multiple years embodies Equitable Food-Oriented Development as defined by the EFOD Collaborative. El Depa successfully:

  • connects communities with smallholder farmers to strengthen local food systems
  • creatively supports farmers and communities after natural disasters by organizing work teams, providing tools and equipment for common use, as well as agricultural educational materials
  • creates market-based options to sell food, or to donate food at risk of being wasted, including a restaurant and community supported agriculture (CSA) food delivery
  • support aging small-scale farmers in advocating for food sovereignty and preserving culturally-relevant agricultural traditions
  • works to counteract the flight of young people from Puerto Rico, and promotes agricultural and food system careers in multiple ways

Key Findings

  1. Without local consultation, the U.S. government has rented or sold the most favorable agricultural properties in Puerto Rico to multi-national corporations. Foreign landowners, not Puerto Ricans, now hold a high proportion of cultivable land. This makes entering agriculture as a small-scale farmer unnecessarily challenging, and limits locally-owned farming that could support food sovereignty. El Depa offers education about government restraints on island land, and works to provide support to local farmers attempting to prosper despite tremendous barriers.
  2. 2. Disaster capitalism allows foreign organizations to exploit Puerto Rico. Foreign disaster organizations undermine Puerto Rican grassroots organizations that are connected to community, and who know how to serve communities during disasters. El Depa is a community-rootedTM and community accountable organization. Their existence and work on the island, particularly disaster relief services, counteracts the usual paternalistic Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who work without true local understanding.
  3. The Jones Act has had a devastating and far reaching impact on the island’s independence. The policy has limited the local economy, reduced the availability of healthy, local food on the island, and has negatively impacted local agricultural systems. Through adaptive and locally responsive food models and programs, El Depa builds more sustainable food systems on the island that are both profitable and healthy for residents on the island.
  4. The current supply chain on the island leads to nutrient loss in food, and negative health impacts. The length of time that transpires from when food is harvested by farmers, handled, and transported to the tables of people in Puerto Rico is unnecessarily lengthy. This is a direct result of the Jones Act and capitalist, U.S. protectionist practices constraining the island’s food system. Community members involved in the Puerto
    Rican food sovereignty movement wish to create a thriving, independent, decolonized food system to replace dependence on the current U.S. government-controlled food system.
  5. El Depa has established multiple locally-owned and run food hubs in multiple areas as first step in building a functional, sustainable food system that can expand commerce and services across the island.
  6. Puerto Rico will continue to experience natural disasters and contend with loss of imported goods during these times. A self-sustaining decentralized food network on the island can help to establish and ensure food security in Puerto Rico during challenging times. El Depa’s food hubs provide ongoing connection to healthy food, especially in times of disaster.
  7. Similar to the United States, Puerto Rico is dealing with an aging farmer population, with few younger farmers coming in to take over in  the next generation. As these aging farmers pass away, agricultural traditions could be lost. As a result, the island could become even more dependent on outside food and resources. El Depa has organized volunteer teams called brigadas to aid smallholder farmers during times of need, as well as an agroteca that provides needed tools and educational materials.
  8. Educational systems in Puerto Rico do not have a robust agricultural curriculum. This contributes to a diminishing agricultural workforce, and does not inspire young people to pursue agricultural careers. El Depa is working to counteract this through training and education to inspire people of all ages to get involved in agricultural and food system careers by offering workshops and hosting internships.