Becoming a Locavore in Cuba
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011

Becoming a Locavore in Cuba
I didn’t set foot in a supermarket for days after I returned from my month-long stay in Havana. I was experiencing a fair amount of culture shock---advertisements everywhere and more stores on one block in my Brooklyn neighborhood than I saw the whole time in Cuba. I wanted to step back into the chilly capitalist waters of my country one toe at a time.

But then I looked in my near-empty fridge and realized it was time to buy some food. Whole Foods or Fairway would have put me over the top, so I chose the local Key Food for my first supermarket excursion. As I wandered down the produce aisle trying not to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety and abundance of the fruits and vegetables piled in the bins, the malanga, with its orange brown skin and creamy white flesh, caught my eye. Malanga, one of the staples of my meals in Havana, right here in Brooklyn. But where was it from? Producto de Costa Rica proclaimed the label. In the next bin I found yautia from Puerto Rico, a hairy cousin to the malanga. And yucca from Nicaragua, with its dark brown skin and sweet potato shape, so delicious smothered in oil and garlic.

I had eaten all of these root vegetables at my Cuban table, but never saw a potato the whole time I was there. In fact, one of my most famous malapropisms in Spanish related to the inexplicable scarcity of potatoes in Cuba. "Cuentame algo de la visita de la papa a Cuba?" Tell me something about the visit of the Pope to Cuba, I asked Carlos one day. My question provoked a fit of hysterical laughter that by then I had begun to associate with having made a mistake in Spanish. "Estamos todavia esperando la llegada de la papa a Cuba," he finally managed to sputter in between guffaws. We’re still waiting for the potato to arrive in Cuba. Evidently I had confused la papa, the lowly potato, with El Papa, the exalted pope.

But why no potatoes in Cuba? Why such a limited variety of fruits and vegetables? As I loaded my Key Food shopping cart with mangoes from Mexico, grapes from Chile, and kiwi from Australia, I realized that I had spent a month eating locally in Havana. With no intention or effort on my part, I had become a locavore.

Food, glorious food…
I don’t typically hang out with people who talk about food a lot. I’m not a gourmet cook or “foodie” and tend toward grilled meat or fish, couscous or pasta and a salad when left to my own devices. I can eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day for a good long while without getting tired of it. All of which put me in good shape to spend a month eating and cooking in Cuba---all except the “talking about food a lot” part, that is.

Cubans talk about food constantly. In addition to the speculation about what happened to the potatoes or when they would arrive, I heard endless discussions about: the prices of different foods in the farmer’s markets; what is or is not available through the heavily subsidized state-run bodegas; how bad the lunch is at the few workplaces that still provide a hot lunch every day; delicious foods remembered from bygone days; the relative merits of various forms of soy-based protein substitutes, etc. etc. Food seemed to be the topic that was most on people’s minds.

And why not? In Cuban culture, as in many others, food represents family, sharing, generosity, friendship, and good times. And Cuban cuisine is renowned for savory stews, rice dishes and wonderful desserts. Despite the difficulty of obtaining certain foods and the high prices, I was invited to several lavish meals during my stay---or rather, meals that would have been normal at one time, but have become “lavish” during these years of economic crisis that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. At Carlos’s house, the table was loaded with pernil (or roast pork), rice, black beans, yucca in garlic sauce, malanga fritters, a huge lettuce tomato, cucumber and carrot salad…and for dessert, flan, a delicious caramel custard. I knew that this was a special spread in honor of my visit, amazing not just for the quantity and variety of food, but also because it was all cooked on two burners of a tiny gas stove—and the flan was made in a pressure cooker.

At my friend Maria Julia’s, where I stayed for most of the month, we had a small cup of espresso coffee in the morning and then were off. Many Cubans start the day with a large cup of café con leche. Coffee is still provided on the libreta or ration card, but milk (in powder form) is only provided to children up to the age of 7. They may also add the small hard roll that is available through the subsidized bodega, but that requires getting to the bakery each morning to collect one for each family member. Loaves of the crusty, soft white bread that Cubans prefer can be purchased at bakeries for about 10 pesos, or 50 cents, but I didn’t see many of those in people’s homes except for special occasions.

Lunch, if you are lucky, is provided in the workplace. Cafeterias and restaurants are few and far between, so if Cubans are out on the streets during the day they tend to rely on a cheap Cuban version of pizza—a thick oily slab covered with a little cheese and tomato sauce—or a small sandwich of tinned meat and bread.

The AIDS Sanitarium, where I spent my days during the first two weeks of my visit, boasts an organic garden plowed by oxen and we ate relatively well —usually rice, beans and some type of protein, maybe a lettuce and tomato salad, and always something sweet to follow, even if only a kind of sweetened corn meal dessert that I had several times during my stay. Everyone pretty much eats whatever is placed in front of them and I followed suit. For several days in a row the protein offering was an unappetizing canned Spam like meat, which I cut into small tidbits and mixed with my rice. But one day a barely warm gooey glob that I could not identify occupied one quarter of my tin plate. What to do? I gazed surreptitiously around the table and noticed my Cuban compañeros devouring it with apparent gusto. So I dug in too. But afterwards I whispered to Carlos—“What was the protein on our plates today? I didn’t recognize it.” This whispered confidence was greeted with a burst of laughter and the announcement to the whole group that “Elena wants to know what the protein was today?” Everyone found this hilarious and no one was able to offer an answer to my question. This mysterious substance was apparently a mystery to the Cubans as well.

La Libreta
I first visited Cuba during years of relative plenty, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. That visit occurred in 1971 with the Venceremos Brigade and we ate most of our meals in the camp where we lived. My Cuban friends who are old enough remember those years, the 70s and 80s, with great nostalgia and longing--- delicious Cuban ice-cream, thick, rich yogurt, and chicken, pork, even steak appearing regularly on their tables.

For many years, the Cuban economy was bolstered by favorable trade relationships with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries, and food security was not a major problem. To ensure equitable access to food, the government initiated a ration system in 1962, three years after the revolution, that is still in place. Each Cuban household is issued a libreta or ration-card (the card is very similar to the ration card from World War II that I found among my father’s memorabilia) and they register at their neighborhood (government owned and run) bodega or market where they are entitled to purchase foods depending on the number of people in their family, the numbers of children, elderly etc. The prices of these foods are very reasonable and don’t make a big dent in a monthly budget. What foods are included in la libreta changes over time and depends on food production and the economic situation in the country. In good times, the list was pretty long and included such items as rice, beans, coffee, oil, sugar, salt, meat, fish and chicken.

I asked Maria Julia to show me her libreta and explain what she is entitled to as a single person household. Here is her current monthly allotment:
½ lb. sugar
5 lbs. rice
10 eggs
½ lb. dry beans
1 lb. chicken or sometimes fish
If she had a child under 7 or an elderly person in her household, they would also be entitled to ground beef and milk.

Because she is living with HIV, Maria Julia also receives a “dieta especial” or special diet which increases her egg quota to 33 per month and provides her with more protein. My god-daughter Rocio, who has celiac disease and cannot eat food with gluten, also received a special diet until she turned 18. This is a big help for people with chronic diseases where good nutrition is crucial for their health.

Mari tells me that her food from the libreta generally only lasts a couple of weeks and then she has to find a way to purchase food at the agropecuario, or farmer’s markets, where prices are very high. Carlos gave me a specific example when I asked about prices, which he says have gone up 15% in recent months. “If I buy a pound of tomatoes at the agro,” he told me, shrugging his shoulders “that will cost me 3 hours of work.”  Another complication of this system occurs when people want to move to a new city or neighborhood.  To discourage over-population in some urban areas, the government sometimes denies the right to change libreta registration and the individual or family is left without access to their alloted ration.  But as with most regulations in Cuba, people find a way around it.

The black market is another way that Cubans supplement their food supply.  Neighbors and friends seem to always know where to obtain things that are hard to find through the black market.  This is fueled by a lot of theft from state-run enterprises, which doesn't help the overall situation, but is increasingly common and accepted as part of the changing way of life in Cuba.

The Cuban government clearly faces a dilemma as it moves forward with economic reform. They cannot afford to maintain the libreta forever even at its present greatly reduced level, and prices are too high for most people to buy in the agro and private markets. Increased food production seems to be the key, but not so easy to achieve, even on this fertile island, with the price of sugar dropping and price of oil increasing…and the U.S. embargo still controlling potential markets and trade.

No hay comida…“El Periodo Especial”
Since the rationing system was put in place, there have been ups and downs in Cuban food production and access. But the worst years by far came immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused a severe economic crisis in Cuba. And the U.S. government seized the opportunity to make things even tougher by tightening the embargo.

I returned to Cuba in 1991, at the beginning of this crisis (optimistically called the “special period in a time of peace”), and I visited once or twice a year for the next decade. The early 90’s were very challenging, with food supplies severely reduced and many items simply unavailable. No hay comida my friends would tell me. “There’s no food.” And of course that was an exaggeration, but Cuban caloric intake did drop dramatically. Food items listed on la libreta were just not to be found and everyone was forced to invent creative dishes with meager and monotonous ingredients. To make matters worse, a shortage of fuel created a transportation crisis, so people were expending much more energy every day in walking or biking around. Most of my friends got pretty skinny and tired. By one estimate I have read, Cuban adults lost 5-25% of their body weight during this crisis.

When I lived in Havana for six months in 1996, things were slowly improving. The government had established the farmer’s markets and more Cubans seemed to have access to dollars which allowed them to buy food in a variety of stores. Still it seemed that all my friends (and me) were mainly eating picadillo (ground beef laced with soy protein to extend it), rice and chicharo ( a dried bean, maybe a type of lentil?) On occasion, an egg, or a small piece of fish or chicken would be added to the mix. Fresh vegetables or fruits were rarely available to most families due to both supply and price. It was during this time that I wrote about my search for pineapple in Havana in an essay that has recently been published in the anthology Storied Dishes (Praeger, 2010—available on Amazon).

The one silver lining in this bleak period was that necessity prompted some inventive solutions. Lack of fertilizer and fuel forced Cuba to explore more organic and sustainable agricultural practices-- less pesticides, and oxen in place of gas-fueled vehicles. And large state run farms were broken up into smaller, and hopefully more productive, cooperatives. Because 80% of the population now lives in urban centers, the government began to support the creation of community and workplace gardens to help meet food needs. It is still rare in Havana to see a backyard or patio garden, in my experience at least, but I did see several workplace gardens on my jaunts around the city.

And the future…?
So, things seem to be getting better—at least in comparison to the serioously difficult 90’s, but shopping for food is still a labor intensive effort, made more complicated by the dual monetary system (Cuban pesos and Convertible pesos). There aren’t many shops, and food products seem randomly stocked. One day Maria Julia asked me to buy a package of rice for the house (she prefers the rice that comes in a 1 lb. plastic bag, even though it costs $2.50 a bag which is 1/10 of her monthly salary, to the rice available at the bodega that must be cleaned before using). I visited four different little stores on San Rafael, a commercial shopping district near her apartment, before I finally found what she wanted. Some of the agro markets had an abundant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables but most people I spoke with found the prices prohibitively high.

At the beginning of this “blog” entry, I proudly proclaimed my locavore status in Cuba. It’s true that I mostly ate what was “in season” and available---a variety of root vegetables, green leafy lettuce, tomatoes, rice, chicken and fish. Mango season is in May, so there were no mangos, but papaya, or “fruta bomba” as it is known in Cuba, was plentiful. But was I really eating locally?

In my quest to understand food production and supply in Cuba, I read an excellent article in a British magazine which informed me that Cuba imports 70% of its food, including rice, beans and powdered milk! When Raul Castro took over the presidency from his brother Fidel in 2008, he made increased food production a priority and initiated a new wave of agrarian reforms including decentralizing agricultural distribution, and putting vacant state owned land into the hands of individuals and private cooperatives. ( These measures and others are aimed at increasing production, especially of milk, rice, pork and beef so that Cuba can decrease its dependence on imported foods.

So…maybe I wasn’t really a locavore after all. But, in the process of figuring this out. I have learned a lot about food in Cuba Meanwhile, my Cuban friends will go on talking about food, inventing creative ways to make do with what they have, and sharing it at their generous and hospitable tables.

(For more historical perspective on this topic, read the excellent No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today, published by Food First in 1984).

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  • Barbara Stein

    Such interesting reading!  I'm learning so much.

  • Mindy Lewis

    Brava, Elena! Your life in blogging has begun - all food for your book.

  • Juliet Wilson

    This is a really interesting article, thanks! I read somewhere that a lot of Cubans are now growing their own food in very small spaces (eg on roof tops) is that something you saw much evidence of?


    On a personal level your experiences in Cuba foodwise were similar to mine in Malawi, when i lived there for two years, several years ago now. Our food was very locally produced and very seasonal, for example there was a two week period when pineapples were available and we seemed to eat nothing else for those two weeks!