Micro-vegetables and sustainable urban food systems in Cuba

The possibility of learning how to grow micro-vegetables, expand their diet and even add a possible source of income led Grispina Torres and Lauce Reyes to the course to encourage the production and consumption of these nutritious foods in Cuba’s cities.

“We heard about the workshop from a neighbour. Sometimes, due to ignorance, we ‘marry’ very little food. If we have the opportunity, we should learn to grow them at home,” Reyes, a 74-year-old law graduate who is now retired, told IPS.

Torres, his wife of 57 years, told IPS that they have previously planted aromatic plants and condiments in their home.

“We have a patio (outdoor area) of about 20 square metres where we can grow micro-vegetables. Now we pay more attention to what we eat,” said the former kindergarten teacher.

The couple lives in La Timba, one of Havana’s 67 vulnerable neighbourhoods in the central municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, one of 15 in the capital.

The course

During the second half of June, around twenty people were trained in theory and practical classes in the technical formation course to create urban micro-production units (MUP) for the production of micro-vegetables in La Timba.

“In addition to teaching people how to produce, we are interested in empowering them to learn about local development, micro-enterprises, finance, food and nutrition education, as well as the creation of sustainable, healthy, inclusive and sovereign urban food systems,” explained Oliesky Fabre, the main driving force behind the initiative.

The 39-year-old architect by profession is the founder and general director of Enparalelo Producciones Agro-Urbanas, which is among the private enterprises authorised in Cuba since September 2021, categorised locally as micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).

“In addition to teaching people to produce, we are interested in empowering them in local development, micro-enterprises, finance, food and nutrition education, as well as the creation of sustainable, healthy, inclusive and sovereign urban food systems”: Oliesky Fabre.
For the past two years, this small business, which also has its headquarters in Plaza de la Revolución, has focused on the cultivation and commercialisation of food with high nutritional value such as micro-vegetables, flowers, mushrooms and edible algae, combining vertical farming techniques and the circular economy under one roof.

With a dozen workers, Enparalelo promotes the local development project Creating Productive Urban Landscapes, aimed at stimulating the use of spaces with potential for sustainable agricultural activities, harmoniously inserted in the urban context.

“We intend for the MUPs to become a model capable of aligning the potential of the Cuban population, as a result of continuous investment in education, with the need to create capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship in the ambit of food security and local development,” Fabre told IPS.

He stressed the interest in working especially with the elderly, a population group “with great human resource potential, also taking into account the emigration of young people and people from rural areas. We also want to turn agricultural activities into something attractive and innovative.

The young entrepreneur recalled that Plaza de la Revolución is the oldest of Cuba’s 168 municipalities, where 30.3 % of its residents are aged 60 or over.

Data from the state-run National Office of Statistics and Information (Onei) also corroborate that 77.1 % of the slightly more than 11 million inhabitants of this Caribbean Island nation live in urban settlements.

According to experts, the process of urbanisation both in Cuba and globally should lead cities to take more responsibility for reducing the high pollution load and to look for alternatives for the generation of their own food.

If at the beginning the course planned to turn the MUPs into a large network of senior producers, “we have preferred to implement them in this first stage with interested people and show results. Then we will work with other groups,” said Fabre.

“We are interested in going to vulnerable neighbourhoods, Havana communities and other Cuban cities,” he added.

Innovative project

Enparalelo is a member of the international Slow Food Movement and its branch in this Caribbean Island nation, the Sustainable Food Movement (MAS), which is part of the non-governmental Cuban Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Environmental Respect (Cubasolar).

MAS is a multidisciplinary network of producers, farmers, educators, academics, chefs, cooks and communicators focused on the processes of production, commercialisation and agro-food consumption; natural food and the accompaniment of governmental actions to achieve food sovereignty and nutritional education.

In 2022 Enparalelo was one of the 10 most innovative projects among more than 200 that applied to the Acelera HZero innovation programme, the Innovation Hub for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) based in Colombia.

The initiative seeks to accelerate the growth of innovative and disruptive projects that contribute to the goal of Zero Hunger in the region.

The selection has allowed Enparalelo to participate in the next phase of acceleration, receive personalised technical support, funding, mentoring and access to the WFP network.

Fabre also signified support and development of synergies with the Faculty of Architecture of the José Antonio Echeverría Technological University of Havana, the municipal government of Plaza de la Revolución, the state-run Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research, and the Ministries of Economy and Planning and Agriculture, among other institutions.

He highlighted the alliance with community and local development projects in the neighbourhood of La Timba, such as Entimbalao and Todas las manos, which in addition to helping to raise awareness of the issue, in the case of the latter provided the classroom for the talks.

Incorporating micro-vegetables into the diet
Microgreens are the first leaves and stems of vegetables or herbal plants, which are highly aromatic. They are considered superfoods because they are concentrated sources of vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients.

Incorporating them diversifies the diet and strengthens the gut microbiota. They can be eaten at any time in salads, pastas, soups and breads. In addition, they are quick and easy to grow in small spaces, without the need for large amounts of soil.

Scientific studies claim that they can help protect against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and certain types of cancer.

“Although micro-vegetables are “in vogue” worldwide, they have only recently become known on the island. Including them in the diet would diversify the offer of nutritious foods,” said sociologist Geraldine Ezquerra.

However, “promoting and making their production and consumption more visible is the first step towards their acceptance as part of the regular diet,” the specialist in slow food and food, nutrition and environmental education, and one of the course’s professors, told IPS.

The specialist reasoned that the term “diet” is often thought of in a restrictive way “and does not refer to the set of foods we consume on a regular basis, the way we combine and prepare them. That look is the first thing that needs to change”, as well as thinking in terms of individual/human and planetary health.

Ezquerra acknowledged that the issue “becomes complex in scenarios where the availability of food and its accessibility is deficient, as in Cuba. But even so, we should not limit food and nutrition education actions, because we can organise our diet in the best possible way, based on the food available”.

Innovations in agriculture and livestock are of particular importance in Cuba, whose government has defined food production as a matter of national security.

The country imports 70-80% of the food it consumes, which has become unsustainable in the face of the economy’s liquidity problems.

A battered agricultural sector hit by the effects of the US embargo, industrial decapitalisation, low yields, shortages of inputs and machinery, climate change, significant crop losses and consumption habits, among many other factors, make the food issue complex.

Since October 2022, Cuba has had a Law on Food Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security, with which it aspires to advance these goals.

Promoting healthy eating

The social food engineer Madelaine Vázquez valued the social and community connotation of the MUPs of micro-vegetables, which, she said, could “bring significant economic benefits, as they are products in high demand, especially for people who are looking to have a healthy, balanced and valuable diet”.

From an environmental point of view, added Cubasolar’s vice-president of Public Relations, “they help to create harmony with the environment, seek biodiversity for an adequate diet and contribute to true sustainable development”.

In Vázquez’s opinion, the MUPs also favour “the employment of women and young people who can implement simple technologies from their homes to produce micro-vegetables that they can then market and help both the local community and their own families to be self-sufficient”.

“This innovative project to supply food to urban communities is a laudable alternative for Cuba and an international reference”, concluded the coordinator of the Sustainable Food Movement in Cuba.

Inter Press Service