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Nonprofit collective supports sustainable food projects, just food ecosystem in Puerto Rico


Experiment, adapt and evolve. That is what El Departamento de la Comida de Puerto Rico has done time and time again as it works to develop sustainable, resilient and regenerative food projects that advance a healthy, decolonized and just local food ecosystem in Puerto Rico.

Being a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is legally and historically disconnected from making decisions about its own economic circumstances. Many Puerto Ricans live with low incomes, particularly small farmers and land-based laborers.

Through Equitable Food Oriented Development, or EFOD, it’s possible to leverage community-driven activities and food and agricultural development to create economic opportunities and healthy neighborhoods while building assets, pride and power by and with historically marginalized communities. In addition to leading with equity and justice, EFOD intentionally focuses on building community power and working towards community ownership.

Part of a nationwide EFOD Collaborative, El Departamento de la Comida first started as a multi-farmer community-supported agriculture (CSA) in 2010 and maintained a small local sustainable food hub all through 2012. Over the next five years, it added a commercial kitchen, a store and a restaurant. After the restaurant was destroyed by Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, El Departamento de la Comida officially reopened as a nonprofit collective in January 2019.

In 2021, with the support of The Kresge Foundation, El Departamento de la Comida expanded its space into a food hub with a Kitchen Program dedicated to food sovereignty for the people of Puerto Rico. It was able to equip its kitchen, experiment with recipes, sell products, purchase inventory from existing product makers, grow and train the collective team,and visit farm partners.

A large group of people are sitting at tables in a room at a workshop listening to a man in a hat and overalls who is standing against a wall with windows.
El Departamento de la Comida’s Agroteca offers skill sharing workshops for local farmers.

At the same time, its Agroteca, or Resource Library program, coordinated volunteer farm brigadas, skill-sharing of local agricultural practices, accessible tool-rental and shared resources like community seeds and educational materials. Brigadas solidarias, or solidarity brigades, were started to help the community rebuild the local food system after it was devastated by the hurricanes. This involved fundraising for local farmers to replant, gathering volunteers to help rebuild the land of local farmers, providing tools and equipment, cooking meals for those working to rebuild, providing skill-sharing workshops and access to seeds and educational material, and advertising the needs of local farmers to gather necessities.

After Hurricane María, the organization adapted from being an urban food hub into fundraising and coordinating island wide brigadas to support farmers. During this time, it shared resources, seeds, skill-sharing and tools, which evolved into a new model for the future by creating a center for community resources in the rebirth of our food hub.

Obstacles included the ongoing pandemic, energy crises and slower than expected permit processes turned out to be valuable learning experiences that altered their approach to the kitchen program, the way they distribute food and seeds, and even the way they used their food hub space.

To better serve the community, El Departamento de la Comida shifted its focus to work closer with markets, farms, food producers and others from the community at their own kitchens and projects. It recognized an opportunity to support its local food ecosystem not just through investing in their space, but by supporting the projects the organization collaborates with as well.

Working primarily with working class farmers, food producers and cooks, as well as activists and environmentalists, mostly all from communities of color, it is important that El Departamento de la Comida takes leadership from those in their community, a member of the collective said.

As part of a project to develop a soon-to-be published case study, Denise Rebeil, master of public policy candidate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, spent three weeks in Puerto Rico working alongside members of the collective.

“There is an immense love for the island and sustainable agriculture that all the members have,” Rebeil said. “One of the most rewarding experiences for me was following a member on their farm and learning how they were able to begin mending the forest from the effects of flooding and erosion, helping it heal and getting all these things to grow.”

What Denise said she didn’t realize going into it beforehand is just how devastating the hurricanes have been.

“Based on what we see in the news, there’s this assumption that they’ve rebuilt and are now in a better place,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”

In the midst of continuing efforts to rebuild from Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona hit the island shortly after Rebeil left. In just one example of the devastation, she said that a member who had invested 5 years into rebuilding a local farm saw it get completely destroyed once again.

“I don’t think the people in the states have a full understanding of how serious the situation is when it comes to issues like infrastructure, energy and food security,” she said.

And there’s not actually a lot of research being done to understand how bad the situation is in terms of food security, Rebeil noted. When there are few statistics or data, it’s hard to advocate in terms of policy.

“On top of that, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory with no political power in Congress,” she said.

Because of her experience, Rebeil was invited to attend the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022 and speak about the work happening in Puerto Rico to address food insecurity and the challenges they face.

“I was lucky enough to sit at a table where the first gentleman came up to ask us what we could do to improve research, and I was able to give suggestions. Things like having researchers who are from the communities they are doing research on. Or if that’s not possible, have researchers who work with the community directly to more accurately represent what they are experiencing, so policy solutions are more effective,” Rebeil explained.

“Instead of only paying attention when a natural disaster hits, people in power, and people in Congress need to do a much better job addressing the needs of Puerto Ricans, which are part of the U.S. People forget that. They are a part of the United State – U.S. citizens, and we treat them as if they’re not part of the country. We need to start seeing Puerto Ricans as part of our nation and do a better job to improve their conditions.”