As Cost of Importing Food Soars, Jamaica Turns to the Earth

from The scent of coconut oil and fiery jerk spice blows through kitchens
across this green island, but as the country’s food imports have become a
billion-dollar threat to finances and health, Jamaica has taken on a
bold new strategy: make farming patriotic and ubiquitous, behind homes,
hospitals, schools, even prisons. 

Across the Caribbean, food imports have become a budget-busting problem,
prompting one of the world’s most fertile regions to reclaim its
agricultural past.
But instead of turning to big agribusinesses,
officials are recruiting everyone they can to combat the cost of
imports, which have roughly doubled in price over the past decade. In
Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas and elsewhere, local farm-to-table
production is not a restaurant sales pitch; it is a government motto.

“We’re in a food crisis,” said Hilson Baptiste,
the agriculture minister of Antigua and Barbuda. 
“Every country is
concerned about it. How can we produce our own? How can we feed our
In a region where farming is still often seen as a reminder of
plantations and slavery, the challenge runs deep, yet at regional
meetings for years, Caribbean officials have emphasized that “food
security,” primarily availability and access, is a top priority. Many
countries are now responding, branding foreign food like meats and
high-calorie snacks a threat, and locally grown food responsible and

Jamaica started earlier than most. A decade ago, the government unveiled
a national food security campaign with the slogan “grow what we eat,
eat what we grow.” Grocery stores now identify local produce with large
stickers and prominent displays. 

Members of rival political parties have also been mostly unified in
support of expanding agriculture by experimental means; Jamaica is now
one of several countries that have given out thousands of seed kits to
encourage backyard farming. 

Schools are heavily involved in the effort: 400 in Jamaica now feature
gardens maintained by students and teachers. In Antigua and Barbuda,
students are now sent out regularly on planting missions, adding
thousands of avocado, orange, breadfruit and mango trees to the islands,
but in Jamaica, gardening and cooking are often part of every school

Teachers like Jacqueline Lewis, the acting director of a small school in
east Kingston with a thriving farm, are on the front lines of what is
considered a battle. That is how Ms. Lewis, 53, treats food and farming,
as issues of national and local security. 

A grinning disciplinarian who is quick to pull a lollipop from a second
grader’s mouth, or to shout “Why ya late?” to dawdling students, she
studied food and agriculture after growing up poor and walking barefoot
with a grumbling belly as a child to the school where she now teaches.
In 1998, she planted her first garden on a craggy strip of dirt in front
of the school. 

It stayed small, mostly peppers and cabbage, until a few years ago when a
European development agency helped pay for a chicken coop and an
expansion. Now her garden includes a second, larger plot. The government
has yet to give her a cent (the agriculture minister said rural schools
were the first priority), but officials have often praised her work,
and so have her students. 

On one recent morning, a dozen boys wandered toward her an hour before
classes. Following quick directions, one group gave water to the
chickens. Another, alongside Ms. Lewis, gingerly stepped into the garden
to water Scotch bonnet peppers, and check if the callaloo — spinach,
kind of, but earthier — was ready to harvest. 

When Ms. Lewis grabbed a machete to show one shy 14-year-old how to
loosen a carrot stalk, all the boys watched. When he pulled out a thick
bunch, with stalks as bright as a sugary orange soda, they all cheered.
“You will not go to town and find carrots like this,” Ms. Lewis said. 

She later noted that many of the children came from troubled backgrounds
and struggled in class. Farming, she said, gave them a reason to come:
attendance and achievement have soared since the school, Rennock Lodge
All-Age School, started offering free breakfast for students, usually
stews made with ingredients they grew themselves. 
“You can’t think when you’re hungry,” Ms. Lewis said. 
Jamaica has always farmed — sugar and bananas, mostly — and imports have
been part of the mix since at least the colonial era because grains are
hard to grow in the region. But the balance tipped more significantly
toward foreign food in the 1990s. From 1991 to 2001, Jamaica’s total
food and beverage imports increased by two-and-a-half times, to $503
million before doubling after that.  

Much of the initial growth coincided with agriculture surpluses around
the world and changing tastes, as more Jamaicans favored meat and
processed food. Many of the country’s 200,000 farmers cut production in
the ’90s and early 2000s because they found it hard to compete. 

Then came the food shortages of 2008. Storms in the Caribbean and
drought elsewhere drove food prices to new heights. Jamaica found that
exporting countries were holding on to food for their own populations. 

With concerns that climate change will make future bad years even worse,
an intensified regional focus on “food security” followed. Results have

Mr. Baptiste said that Antigua and Barbuda was on track to produce half
its food this year, up from only 20 percent in 2009, but most of the
Caribbean has seen less astounding improvement. Jamaica’s progress, even
after so many years, is subtle. Its food import bill has held steady
around a billion dollars a year and though some production has grown —
79 percent of the country’s potato consumption now comes from Jamaican
sources — there are still challenges of taste. “We import a lot of
French fries,” said the country’s agriculture minister, Roger Clarke

The transformation that Caribbean officials seek faces other obstacles
as well. Mr. Clarke said many Jamaicans who received free seeds gave up
on farming once they saw an increase in their water bills, or when
thieves plundered their fields or stole their chickens. 

Still, officials across the region say more young people are getting
involved, partly because food prices have soared, but also because
governments have promised that agriculture means steady work, and not
just in the fields. 

The Bahamas is building a gleaming food science university to emphasize agricultural best practices.

Haiti, which experienced food riots in 2008, recently broke ground on a
series of silos for a “strategic food reserve,” while Jamaica is
considering investments in juicing and food preservation start-ups.
“We have idle hands and arable land,” Mr. Clarke said. “We are trying to see how we can bring those two together.”

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