Cuba’s urban farming program has been a stunning, and surprising, success. The farms, many of them on tiny plots like Bouza’s, now supply much of Cuba’s vegetables. They also provide 350,000 jobs nationwide with relatively high pay and have transformed eating habits in a nation accustomed to a less-than-ideal diet of rice and beans and canned goods from Eastern Europe.
From 1989-93, Cubans went from eating an average of 3,004 calories a day to only 2,323, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, as shelves emptied of the Soviet goods that made up two-thirds of Cuba’s food. Today, they eat 3,547 calories a day — more than what the U.S. government recommends for American citizens.
“It’s a really interesting model looking at what’s possible in a nation that’s 80 percent urban,” said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. “It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits.”
Of course, urban farms might not be such a success in a healthy, competitive economy.
As it is, productivity is low at Cuba’s large, state-run farms where workers lack incentives. Government-supplied rations — mostly imported from the U.S. — provide such staples as rice, beans and cooking oil, but not fresh produce. Importers bring in only what central planners want, so the market doesn’t correct for gaps. And since most land is owned by the state, developers are not competing for the vacant lots that can become plots for vegetables.
Still, experts say the basic idea behind urban farming has a lot of promise.
“It’s land that otherwise would be sitting idle. It requires little or no transportation to get (produce) to market,” said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “It’s good anyway you look at it.”
And with fuel prices and food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many say the Cuban model should spread.
“There are certain issues where we think Cuba has a lot to teach the world. Urban agriculture is one of them,” said Beat Schmid, coordinator of Cuba programs for the charity Oxfam International.
I think someone also made a documentary recently about how urban farming staved off disaster in Cuba.