Learning to Eat Healthy in Cuba, Where Everything Is in Short Supply

Maria Paco is trying to teach Cubans that they they can get by without a meat-based main course. EFE

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 12 March 2024 — Changing Cuban eating habits, with an emphasis on health and local availability, at the same time the country is experiencing a food shortage is the aim of a nutritional education project sponsored since 2017 by the Spanish-French entrepreneur María Paco.

“People often laugh when I talk about diversifying the Cuban diet and learning to eat healthier — with vegetables, with no sugar and abandoning the idea of a ’main course,’ which here means meat,” she tells EFE from her organic farm on the outskirts of Havana.

Paco quit her job in France as a fruit broker for a big international corporation and came to Cuba for the first time in 2014. “What I noticed was how little Cubans knew about the benefits of nutritional education, especially in a country where everything is in short supply,” she explains.

“My parents and grandparents were campesinos who taught me the importance of using everything that came out of the fields”

“My parents and grandparents were campesinos — peasant farmers — who taught me the importance of using everything that came out of the fields, of not throwing anything away,” she says in describing her Spanish roots.

Her alternative menu might feature pureed eggplant on toasted bread; salads made with lentils, cabbage and chili; or pizzas topped with basil, rosemary and parsley instead of the usual tomato and cheese. She even suggests substituting fruits such as bananas for artificially flavored carbonated beverages.

“I started with the people who were helping me on the farm. At first, they looked askance when I served them yellow rice with vegetables instead of chicken, or gave them a snack of toasted bread, pureed eggplant and tomato juice. They later began to assimilate the changes into their own meals, using what they themselves were harvesting here on the farm,” she says.

Her efforts have taken on a new urgency in the last three years. The island’s most recent economic crisis, caused mainly by a lack of foreign exchange earnings, has created a severe shortage of basic staples such as milk and flour in a country that imports 80% of what it consumes.

In 2017 Paco signed an agreement with the Juan Tomás Roig primary school in the town of Cacahual to turn her initiative into a community development project which would offer nutritional education to students aged five to eleven years.

“The idea was that children would come once a month to cook, to learn, to eat vegetables, to see that it was easier and healthier to eat what they had on hand at home than to eat junk food,” she says.

“They learn to value the work of the farmer. They collect their vegetables, prepare them and then they eat what they themselves make,” she explains.

The experiences of the children participating in the project were featured in a video series

The experiences of the children participating in the project were featured in a video series entitled “Cooking, a Game for Everyone.” The series was funded by the World Food Program, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

At a recording session a few days ago in Havana, French director Dominique Clément explained that each of the series’ ten 8-minute-long episodes features a recipe using products grown on Paco’s farm.

Paco highlighted her project became more valuable when the Food Sovereignty Law was passed in 2022 because the law ” supports taking advantage of what we can cultivate from an approach that also respects nature.”

This legislative text proposes strengthening municipal autonomy, reducing food waste losses and promoting  sustainable agricultural practices based on agroecological bases, among other topics.

Paco herself acknowledges that ” in Cuba food is very good, but sometimes it gets wasted and that becomes a headache for many parents.”

She admits, however, that the hardest part has been changing Cuban attitudes and customs. “People still laugh when I tell them a meal does not have to include meat.”


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