Cubans’ Limited Interest in Vegetables

Article and photos by Yulia Rock

At El Vivero Alamar, a 25-acre organic farm outside Havana, 90 percent of the farm’s red soil produces potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage and medicinal and spiritual herbs for the local community. As at every other farm in Cuba, the government permits El Vivero to use 10 percent of the land as it likes.

“We use it to grow zucchini, arugula and other exotic crops that Cubans don’t know,” said Isis Salcines Milla, who operates the farm with her father, Miguel Salcines.

Miguel Salcines, a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture and founder of the organic farm El Vivero Alamar, with some of the root vegetables he grows.

Most Cubans, she said, are not familiar with zucchini and many other vegetables. “If you see a typical plate of food of a Cuban person, it’s a mountain of rice, beans, meat and symbolic decorative vegetables,” she said. “They will go as far as lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage, no more. In fact, you will go bankrupt if you sell only vegetables.”

For the farm, which is right across a street from a huge Soviet-built housing project, to survive, it also sells pineapples and papayas, which are popular throughout Cuba.

Influenced by African and Spanish culture—many Cubans are descended from slaves brought by the Spanish colonizers—Cubans, like many Caribbean neighbors, prefer rice, beans, meat, fruits and certain types of vegetables, including onions, avocado and garlic.

El Vivero, an organic farm, sits across a street from a Soviet-built housing project.

Rafael Barrios, director of production at a cooperative farm in Viñales, said, “Even though workers at the farm can grow vegetables in their backyard, they will always prefer to eat heavy food.”

Cubans’ fondness for starch-laden foods persists despite some government concern. Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health, in a 2011 report, “Cuba: An Overweight Country,” said Cubans consumed vegetables and fruits on average only 3.2 days a week.

Government policy isn’t helpful either. The ration cards provided to every Cuban do not list fruits and vegetables, only basic items such as beans, cooking oil, rice, dry milk (only for children up to 7), matches, coffee, salt, brown and white sugar, and two chicken legs twice a month .

“If you want to eat more than what is on the ration card, you have to pay extra,” said Izabelle Moreno, a host of one of Havana’s casas particulares, private homes that rent out rooms.

So the cost of eating more vegetables would come directly from Cubans’ pockets.

Bixa orellana, or “lipstick tree,” also grows at the farm. Its seeds can be used as organic lipstick, spice and to dye fabric.

The average salary is $25 a month, and the government takes 35 percent of that in taxes.  Like many other Cubans, Moreno earns additional income by renting out a room in her sister’s apartment to tourists through Airbnb and local agencies for 40 CUCS, about $40, a night.

The government taxes this income at 55 percent, “but, listen, we have a free health-care system, education and ration cards,” she added. Moreno said tourism helped her family buy more food.

In December, The New York Times reported that  surging tourism was depriving Cubans of vegetables, asserting, “Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch.”

Isis Salcines Milla, who operates El Vivero Alamar with her father, and other Cubans interviewed for this article, scoffed.

“This man, New York Times man, came here. My father was very excited with the zucchini, a new crop we planted at our farm, and showed it to him,” she said. “The man took pictures and sent a wrong message: he claims that tourists eat all the vegetables in Cuba.”

Esther Velis Diaz, director of Cuban international relations for the Fundacion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez in Havana, said with a laugh: “Don’t worry; we have enough food, tourists do not eat our lunch at all. We like tourists.”

Meanwhile, Milla and her father hope that eventually Cubans will change their preferences and eat more vegetables, allowing them to grow not only rows of organic potatoes, cabbage and onions but zucchini and other crops as well.