Vilda Figueroa and José Lama live in a small ground-floor apartment a few blocks from the main avenue in Marianao, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. There, the aging couple are surrounded by their work of the last two-plus decades: shelves of homemade food preserves; a table with dozens of publications; and photos of the two of them, on national television for their cooking show or teaching classes about food.
Lama and Figueroa founded the organization Proyecto Communitario Conservacion Alimentos (Community Food-Preservation Project) in 1996 with a goal to help the most vulnerable Cubans provide their own food and preserve it for consumption throughout the year. But they also hoped to change Cuban food culture through education on nutrition and all aspects of food production.
This was during the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” when Cuba’s food security dropped precipitously following the fall of the Soviet Union. Figueroa and Lama hosted classes for Cubans who wanted to learn how to garden, cook, and preserve food for their families.
Havana has a densely populated city center with little green space. Neighborhoods farther from the center, like Marinao or Diez de Octubre, and the rural-feeling outskirts of Havana Province are where Figueroa and Lama have spurred change. Where there is space, small gardens and farms have appeared. This has increased the supply of produce and improved food security, even for those in the denser central areas who don’t have space to garden. Farming the outskirts of Havana has resulted in real progress for the entire city, with studies showing that today, almost 90 percent of the produce consumed in Havana province is grown there.
While nearly one-third of Cuba’s land is used for farming, the vast majority of that land historically was used to produce sugarcane, most of which was exported. Small farms and personal gardens were not part of the larger culture, Figueroa says. Most of the country’s farmland was dedicated to sugarcane plantations.
For many years, Cuba imported most of its food, to keep land devoted to growing its primary export. During the first few decades of Fidel Castro’s rule, the Soviet Union underwrote the country’s needs, paying a premium for sugar and providing food, petroleum, machinery, and other goods in return. But when the USSR fell in 1989, Cubans were forced to become self-sufficient quickly.
“Before 1989, the Cuban intake was about 3,000 [calories per day] and 90 grams [3 ounces] of protein, of which about 45 percent was animal protein,” Figueroa says. “Two years later, in 1991, the intake was down to 1,800 [calories] and only 50 grams [1.75 ounces] of protein and was mainly vegetable protein. People were losing weight, and it was very stressful.” The average Cuban lost about 20 pounds at that time.
Figueroa had earned a doctorate in nutrition from the University of Havana and had traveled internationally to study nutrition for farm animals. Even prior to the beginning of the “special period,” she had started a personal organic garden, then quite rare on the fringes of Havana.
After teaching themselves—initially from a resource book that came out during World War II—Figueroa and Lama helped make small-scale food production part of Cuban culture, a process that had a lot of government support. They popularized the farming and eating of produce like cassava, which can thrive in the tropical climate of Cuba and is highly nutritious. They developed recipes and cooking techniques, such as ways to make cassava flour and banana flour for bread or cake (since wheat isn’t grown in Cuba). They teach fermentation, drying, and canning, which can provide extra income for people who make small batches of sauces or jams to sell at their local farmers’ market—now legal, under recent changes in the law.
They have done all this with a focus on person-to-person education and have insisted on remaining an independent entity, even as they work closely with large institutions like the Cuban government and the international Slow Food organization. Their favored approach is to teach “promoters,” as Figueroa calls them: people who learn from Figueroa and Lama and bring that knowledge back to their neighborhoods.
Food security in Cuba has greatly improved, but remains an issue; government rations of eggs, sugar, rice, and pork account for less than a third of what the typical Cuban eats, and the average monthly wage still hovers around $20. But according to Figueroa, Cubans now eat 400 grams, or 14 ounces, of vegetables a day, a five-fold increase since the “special period.” That speaks, in part, to her and Lama’s efforts.