If you ever fly into Puerto Rico, you will see mile after mile of lush green vegetation spread out below you. What may also be apparent is that the vast majority of it is wild and mountainous with no planted and farmed fields anywhere to be found. Puerto Rico is an Island that has a climate, which is absolutely perfect for growing all sorts of amazing crops; yet, the U.S.’s Operation Bootstrap has transformed the luscious green Island of farmers into a manufacturing hub. Almost half (46%) of the GDP is manufacturing, predominately pharmaceutical and an astounding 85% of all products consumed in Puerto Rico being sold by U.S. corporations.
There is a movement afoot to change all of that. The Islanders as well as the Diaspora are coming together and making noise in the hopes that it will break the Island from its colonial existence that has oppressed its economic system for so many years.
There are dozens of manifestations; forums, talks, petitions and social media buzz to END the law of Cabotage (Jones Act) a document placed over 100 years ago. There’s also the ‘Local Grown’ movement of which a number of restaurants and cafés, La Salita Café included, are setting out to make organic and local grown produce and ingredients a priority in Puerto Rico once more.
What often gets forgotten is that Puerto Rico was once an Island that thrived on agriculture and the growing of crops. The beginning of the move away from that came back in the 1940’s, which was when Operation Bootstrap was introduced. Industrialization became the focus throughout the country, with farming being pushed further and further down the totem pole of importance. The American influence also started to take hold, as TV dinners and fast food chains became the norm. It only took the passing of a single generation for the once ripe farmlands to become overgrown and essentially defunct.
There are many in Puerto Rico who didn’t forget about the vast array of agricultural riches that its rich soil has to offer. After all, you need only look out the window of just about any building in Puerto Rico to see brilliant swatches of green as far as the eye can see and if you look close enough you’ll find hidden gems of urban agriculture all around; fantastic projects by groups and organizations in the most unlikely of places.
In a time where knowing what is in your food is so important, developing, supporting, buying and eating locally is a pivotal movement in helping the economy of the Island. The world of organic food, supporting local farmers, and living a sustainable life is nothing new, but, in Puerto Rico, in a culture where its creole food is centered around starchy, heavy deep fried dishes, its refreshing. The number of establishments now taking part in the movement is a testament to how well it is doing.
We are getting a little ahead of ourselves in telling this story, though, and we also want to be sure to give credit where it is due. At La Salita Café, we are part of a small, unofficial network of people devoted to sharing the word about all that this little Island has to offer; its beautiful and delicious locally grown products and its noteworthy savory coffee. This is a group without an official leader, but every movement needs a recognizable face in order for it to be heard. Puerto Ricans love when one of their own makes good, and Chef Jose Enrique certainly fits that bill. He is an established chef who is one of the pioneers in this movement on the Island. His self-named restaurant, as well as others like El Departmento de la Comida (a delicious and uber homey farm to table restaurant), Peace and Loaf, and Teta’s La Cocina are blazing a trail that is lighting the way for others to follow.
What all of these restaurants have in common is that they will regularly create their menu based off of what is fresh or available locally on any given day. This doesn’t just give the chef’s in these places the opportunity to be creative, it also means that the patrons of these establishments know that they are eating something that was hand-picked in their own back yard just hours before it hit their plates. Again, much of the success of the movement goes back to the pride of the Puerto Rican people, as they want to be recognized for doing something exciting and innovative especially with food! Puerto Rico is known for its savory dishes and the very special base seasonings that are in almost every single dish. In a world of pre-packaged, processed food, it doesn’t get more innovative than the farm to table concept.
The ironic part of all of this is that local diners are often surprised to learn that the food on their plates is locally sourced. When the shift in perspective started happening back in the late 40’s, restaurant menus slowly started to change until they became totally unrecognizable from what they once were. Puerto Ricans also realize that using home grown foods means getting back to a level of sustainability that has long since been replaced by dependability. The community supported agriculture projects of the early days of the movement are growing, and are moving from small back lots to full fields of produce. Once people got a taste of what was on offer, they wanted more.
There are some restrictions in finding the quantities required to run a restaurant locally, which is why places like Cocina Abierta and Verde Mesa are still forced to use a combination of local and imported goods. The hope is that the movement will eventually reach a level of sustainability that will allow as many establishments as possible to offer a menu of locally grown organic foods. In order for that to become a reality, the public has to continue responding as well as they have been over the past few years. The farmers and restaurant owners in this network deserve plenty of credit for getting things started, but it is the people of Puerto Rico who perhaps need to take the biggest bow, for facing adversity and in current difficult times, finding ways to spread the infectious love for good healthy food and supporting 100% local.
If this is the first you are hearing of the organic movement in Puerto Rico, we encourage you to give the aforementioned restaurants a visit. If they are not close to where you are, do a little research to see if there is a healthy, organic restaurant in your neighborhood. Be sure to come and visit us at La Salita Café, we will be opening soon so keep an eye out. Our Indiegogo campaign will launch soon which will give us the last push to finally get up and running. There, we will serve you delicious food and great coffee, all of which was grown and raised in Puerto Rico.