De la Tierra a Tu Mesa (From the Earth to Your Table): Nurturing food security in Puerto Rico

Imagine you live on a beautiful island, with fertile soil all around you, enough to grow most vegetables, and many foods. Farmers grow crops – but sometimes it’s not what you’d eat, and they export most of it, as that’s where the profits are. You eat what you buy on the shelves of the supermarket, which consists mostly of imported foods –- never fresh enough to leave an impression, and, yet, if a storm strikes, a ship sinks, or the port is inaccessible, then deliveries to your island will halt.

That’s the situation for Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans faced significant food insecurity after Hurricane Maria (FEMA projected a deficit of 1.8 million meals per day in the weeks after Maria), and this has continued through recent disasters. Approximately 80 percent of food is shipped to the island, home to an estimated 2.6 million people.

At Atma, we are working with local communities to change the picture. Our name for this farm-to-table movement, encouraging food security, self-sufficiency, good nutrition and community is De la Tierra a Tu Mesa, From the Earth to Your Table.

“This is truly a collaborative effort, bringing together community leaders, chefs, nonprofits and even a museum, to bring this initiative to life,” says Atma’s Puerto Rico Program Manager Erika Marrero, who grew up in the archipelago. “We partnered with a number of community organizations, including La Fondita de Jesus, Asociación Enlace Asuntos Comunitarios de Sabana Seca, Semillas de Esperanza, Inc; Naguabo Somos Todos; and Asociación Comunitaria de Llanos Tuna, Cabo Rojo. These organizations are focused on development of their communities and improvement of the quality of life of residents.”

Part of the funding for the new program came from Love, Tito’s, which works with nonprofits across the U.S. and around the world to spread love and goodness.

Atma’s purpose with De La Tierra a Tu Mesa is to educate people on the health benefits of eating fresh food, create a movement about food security on the island, and lift up farming as one of the most critical occupations in the world.

“Our campaign is to help people understand that we need to be food secure. With this project, we want to create community dinners that bring people together to enjoy local food, and encourage people to buy local produce,” explains Marrero.

Atma approached key individuals and organizations to develop the initiative. These included Chef Jerome Giuliano Zayas; Mariny Vazquez, a leader in Naguabo and super-user of AtmaGo, Atma’s mobile app and platform; Finca Escuela de La Perla; Asoc.Enlace Asuntos Comunitarios de Sabana Seca,Semillas de Esperanza,Inc., Team Warrior News, Asociación Comunitaria Llanos Tuna; and Regimiento Fijo de Puerto Rico, Inc.

“We connected with these organizations to join their already existing events, or create an event for their communities to reach more people,” Marrero explains. At Atma, collaboration is key. “Our approach is vital for this program. We help support community-identified needs and priorities.”

The Launch at a Health Fair

De la Tierra a Tu Mesa launched in the community of Sabana Seca, Toa Baja, with a community organized Health Fair in February. More than 170 people at the fair enjoyed herbal infusions as natural medicine to treat ailments. Chef Jerome Zayas prepared the infusion in an open kitchen, as he discussed the health benefits of each medicinal plant, root or flower; as well as where to find it, where to grow it, how to grow it. Additionally, the chef gifted many of these ingredients to the attendees – ingredients that were harvested from Marrero’s own vegetable garden, as well as from the community garden La Finca Escuela de la Perla, in La Perla, San Juan.

Students from a journalism club of homeschooled children, Team Warriors News, visited the fair, and were encouraged to develop their skills by interviewing and filming the fair’s participants. Upon listening to Chef Jerome’s explanation on the health benefits of the great bougainvillea, a shrub-vine used ornamentally in the Island, one student exclaimed: “You’re telling me that I am sick in bed… with the cure in my window?!” The same student had initially started the day in exhaustion from recent personal events, yet as the fair progressed, she swelled with the energy of the fair and said, “This is so fun! I believed that interviewing was going to be hard, but it is so great and easy to talk to everyone. Everyone wants to talk!” The students, who interviewed health fair attendees, use AtmaGo, as well as their own magazine, to share their stories.

In addition to the bougainvillea infusion, Chef Jerome prepared an infusion of turmeric, whose health benefits, he said, are activated by adding black pepper; Peruvian ragweed infusion, which helps fight nervousness, depression, anxiety, inflammation and infections; and lemongrass, clove, and cinnamon infusion, which helps regulate blood sugar. Chef Jerome also brought a homemade cleaner carbon made from coconut, which he said can be ingested, to clean one’s body, or burnt like coal. While we don’t give medical advice, there are some effective natural remedies that help alleviate symptoms.

The health fair drew more than 200 attendees. Other participants in the health fair were La Fondita de Jesús, Red Cross, the AARP and several health insurance companies. Fondita also brought their Mobile Unit, a mobile medical service with experts, where people could get their blood sugar and vitals checked.

The De la Tierra a Tu Mesa events will continue throughout 2023. Here is a sample of upcoming events.

April 21: The Commemoration of the 1797 British Siege of Old San Juan, a living history event hosted by the Regimiento Fijo de Puerto Rico. This three-day activity educates people about the life of Puerto Rico during the 18th century and enacts the historical battle that was won by the commonfolk of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico had been food sovereign during this time and up until the late 20th century. De la Tierra a Tu Mesa will not only re-enact a historical kitchen and represent a food sovereign island, but will also educate people about the archipelago’s generational gastronomy and hold an open kitchen to feed the event’s participants. As the event will be held in what was the historical market plaza, Atma intends to re-create a market as well and promote the local economy.

April 27: The Festival del Dulce, or Sweets Fair in Naguabo. Community Leader Mariny Vázquez, who enjoyed the videos and photos from the launch event in Sabana Seca, and, as a collaborator of De la Tierra a Tu Mesa, asked Atma to incorporate infusions into the Sweets Fair. An open infusion-kitchen is planned during the day’s event, with two educational workshops about infusions. Atma’s focus will be on infusions that help a person control blood sugar.

May 28: Llanos Tuna event: Atma will hold a De la Tierra a Tu Mesa event in the southwest of the Island, in Llanos Tuna, the largest barrio in Cabo Rojo.

Meanwhile, growing, preparing and enjoying food is not the end of the story. Atma also is sharing information about composting. As the Atma Puerto Rico team said on Facebook, “Compost is an integral part of any food production system, and it also helps to reduce organic waste that builds up in landfills. Community, domestic, and commercial kitchens can collect all their vegetable material and deliver it to farmers, community gardens and neighbors with home gardens so they can produce fresh, healthy meals. Contribute to our Puerto Rican food security! Let us know if you’d like to donate your compost and we’ll connect you with people who will receive it with open arms.”

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