Farmers work in an onion field at a hydroponic farm in Havana, Cuba, on Thursday, May 15, 2008. The farm uses specialized irrigation methods to grow vegetables in smaller, non-rural areas. With food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many expect Raúl Castro to expand the program he began in the 1990s. (AP photo/Javier Galeano)
HAVANA — For Miladis Bouza, the global food crisis arrived two decades ago. Now, her efforts to climb out of it could serve as a model for people around the world struggling to feed their families.
Bouza was a research biologist, living a solidly middle-class existence, when the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the halt of its subsidized food shipments to Cuba — effectively cut her government salary to $3 a month. Suddenly, a trip to the grocery store was out of reach.
So she quit her job, and under a program championed by then-Defense Minister Raúl Castro, asked the government for the right to farm an overgrown, half-acre lot near her Havana home. Now, her husband tends rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, while Bouza, 48, sells the produce at a stall on a busy street.
Neighbors are happy with cheap vegetables fresh from the field. Bouza never lacks for fresh produce, and she pulls in between $100 to $250 a month — many times the average government salary of $19.
“All that money is mine,” she said. “The only thing I have to buy is protein” — meat.
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.(p2)
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