By Mayra S. Crespo Bellido
In 1942, Dr. Lydia J. Roberts was asked by Dr. M. L. Wilson of the US Food and Nutrition Board to visit Puerto Rico under the pretenses that “there was a problem in [the island], which ordinarily imported much of its food.” After all, the island only produced 65% of the food the habitants needed, 35% was being imported at the time. Dr. Roberts was assigned to study the food and nutrition situation in order to report back to Washington, DC. Out of her collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico as a visiting professor, a clear picture of the living situation for the islanders during the 1940s was portrayed in her book Patterns of Living in Puerto Rican Families. This classic one-of-a-kind report depicts explicitly the poor health conditions and severe food insecurity in most households, mostly due to lack of educational and monetary resources. During this period infectious diseases were ranked #1 among the most common causes of mortality for all ages.
In the 21st century, a changing landscape of health problems troubles Puerto Rico. Following nutrition transition patterns of developing countries, the leading causes of death of our time are all from complications of chronic conditions associated with the increasing prevalence of obesity in the island. In 2013, 35% of Puerto Ricans living in the island benefited from the Nutrition Assistance Program, and the majority of the population benefits from other programs such as WIC and Child Nutrition Programs. Nonetheless, Puerto Rico deals with serious food security issues as the island produces only 17.65% of the food it consumes, importing 82% from over 10 different countries.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The four dimensions of food security as defined by the FAO are: food availability, food access, proper utilization and stability. A recent study established that food security is not distributed equally as people living in rural areas of the island are disproportionately affected unemployment rate, greater proportion of habitants below the poverty level and lower education levels all of which may create barriers to food access and proper utilization. However for the Puerto Rican population it becomes a little more complicated than that.
Dr. Myrna Comas, Puerto Rico Secretary of Agriculture, has made it her lifework to bring awareness of the vulnerability of the food chain supply in Puerto Rico. As stated by Dr. Comas, the high dependence on imported foodstuff, constant decreases in local agricultural production, the fact that there is only one functioning seaport that receives all merchandise imported, the great distances food has to travel to get to the island, and a lack of policy to ensure food security are some of the many reasons the food chain supply to the island is susceptible to external influences. Some identified risk factors that could interfere with the supply of food are: global climate change, food and water contamination, reduction of terrains devoted to agriculture in the island, accidents, and free trade agreements, among others.
Under the direction of Dr. Comas, the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture has systematically addressed these issues for the past couple of years. Part of this plan to counterattack the risk of having a food crisis includes an educational campaign to bring awareness to the matter of food security, and initiatives to conserve agricultural lands and to promote local agricultural production of staple foods. There is evidently a long way to go until this matter is resolved. Hopefully with increased knowledge and understanding of the repercussions of letting this problem remain unaddressed will encourage the proper authorities to create local and international food policy that avoids an impending food crisis in the island.
Rosario-Mejías, M, Dávila-Román, A. (2012). Distribución geográfica de la seguridad alimentaria en Puerto Rico, 2005-2009. CIDE Digital 3(1-2), 109-118.