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  • Writer's pictureFernando Ortiz

Que Comemos? Food, Justice and La Isla del Encanto

Environmental Justice learning in Puerto Rico

In May of 2019, I embarked on an amazing journey to Puerto Rico on an environmental justice tour organized by the 100% Network in collaboration with Organization Boricua de Agricultura Ecologica de Puerto Rico. The mission of this field trip was to learn, share, tour and reflect on environmental justice issues that are common across many communities. My role in this field trip was as a representative from THE POINT CDC as their Climate Preparedness and Resiliency Organizer at the time.

Puerto Rico nicknamed La Isla del Encanto (The Island of Enchantment) is truly beautiful and has experienced several serious issues especially post-Hurricane Maria around environmental and social problems- all which climate change poses to amplify. As an island that is essentially a colony of the United States or as we call it a "sovereign territory or commonwealth state" Puerto Rico is in a funny political situation where it is not an official state. Since the American occupation on the island- many things have changed- including how Puerto Ricans access food.

Post-Hurricane Maria, many communities soon realized the danger of being dependent on an overseas entity for basic necessities including food- and how detached Puerto Rico has become from localized food production, a tradition very tied to their culture and identity. We toured several towns within Puerto Rico, visiting different organizations such as El Josco Bravo, Casa Puebla, ENLACE-Proyecto Cano Martin Pena and the Agriculture School Botijas I. Food sovereignty was one of the overarching themes shared across these communities as well as lack of resources post-hurricane, renewable energy projects such as solar energy and the fight against a polluted canal in an environmental justice community.

Food is a basic human right and necessity- access to healthy food should not be a privilege enjoyed by the upper classes but a given right to all human beings. Unfortunately, this is not the case across the globe and Puerto Rico has been no exception. This became more clear when people were struggling with hunger and the lack of food after a hurricane that devastated the entire island in 2017. Many low-income, communities of color and environmental justice communities lack access to healthy food options and even more- lack access to food sovereignty- the ability to locally grow, distribute and consume healthy food.

Representing the South Bronx- particularly the community of Hunts Point, I was able to quickly understand and relate to many of the food justice issues I witnessed in Puerto Rico. Hunts Point is host to the US largest food distribution center, bringing in billions of dollars annually in revenue to the City. Its residential neighborhood is within one of the poorest congressional districts, with nearly 40% of its population living below the federal poverty line, with 33% of its population being foreign-born, and where 1 out of 4 of its population suffers from obesity, diabetes and asthma. This community, despite being within the same neighborhood to the largest food market- suffers from large food apartheid issues in which the community must wait for up to two weeks for food to circulate around the food network of NYC before it reaches their communities. And the access to healthy food options is minimal within this community.

Puerto Rico brings to mind the images of coqui's, beautiful beaches, palm trees, vibrant music and Bacardi- yet the island has struggled for decades with food justice issues all across the island. Most of its agricultural lands are foreign-owned and used to grow cash crops like sugarcane, so when Hurricane Maria ravished the island- the communities saw themselves hungry, angry and without the ability to grow their own food. Being able to experience this field trip and studying both the environmental justice and food justice issues within Puerto Rico was really inspiring. Learning first-hand from grassroots communities and being able to eat a whole meal grown by local youth was a great experience. Hearing how the children shared their experiences about being able to grow squash and beans and tomatoes in the days post Hurricane Maria, and bring produce to their homes in a time when parents couldn't provide food for the household and in which the majority of adults do not know the skills to grow food was truly inspirational- it demonstrates that our future generations are equipping themselves with the right skills and knowledge, learning from our mistakes and building more connected relationships with our land and Nature...

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