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Cuban Businesses Trying to Make Healthy Foods Available – Havana Times

7 minutes, 50 seconds Read
Yamira Muñoz, one of the workers at the local development project Bacoretto, produces artisanal baking flour made in this private business located in the municipality of Guanabacoa, one of the districts of the Cuban capital. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

By Luis Brizuela (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – In Cuba, new ventures are emerging that produce healthy foods, generate income and employment, meet the needs of people with various health conditions, and promote new dietary habits and proper nutrition.

However, these private businesses face numerous challenges in a country with a deficient agricultural production, high prices, and dietary habits that undermine the health and quality of life of individuals.

Artisanal flours made from banana, cassava, rice, and coconut, gluten-free, distinguish Bacoreto, a family venture located in the municipality of Guanabacoa, one of the 15 districts that make up Havana.

“We meet a specific need such as the supply of gluten-free flours, substitutes for wheat flour. Our production reaches around 100 kilograms annually. They benefit about twenty people with celiac disease, diabetes, and hypertension,” explained Gabriel Perez, the director of the local project, aged 38.

A graphic designer and creative director by profession, Perez explained that Bacoretto was born in August 2022 on the grounds of his family’s farm of about 800 square meters and now employs eight people, five of them women. Except for the grinding, the remaining production processes are artisanal. The drying of fruits and tubers uses only solar energy or ambient temperature, he added.

“We started from a need, preserving food for a longer time. We thought about dehydrating farm produce for self-consumption until we reached the flours. We sent surplus to friends who are chefs, who encouraged us to continue producing due to their quality, texture, and flavor. That’s how the business idea was born,” Perez recalled.

In addition to cookies, “with the flours, we make baked products such as bread, waffles, and cakes, some of which we sell. We also make the most of the by-products of the harvests: we obtain coconut milk as well as vinegar from the peels.”

Although the production capacity is small, Perez stated that “we are useful to the community. Everyone can access our offerings, although those with celiac disease are the ones who demand the most because they struggle a lot to consume gluten-free.”

According to Perez, there is a lot of information, but “people are not always given the opportunity to learn about substitute foods and perhaps, with better nutritional contributions. Changing habits is complex.”

Sample of processed foods at the headquarters of the small private company Dehydrated Habana, in the municipality of Playa, in Havana. With 26 workers, half of them women, this Cuban food enterprise favors the dehydration of fruits with nutritional value, free of preservatives and added sugars. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Context

Since October 2022, Cuba has had a Law on Food Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security, of strategic importance within the National Economic and Social Development Plan until 2030. The island’s government has defined food production as a matter of national security. The country imports about 80% of the food it consumes, which has become unsustainable due to economic liquidity problems.

The development of food production is overshadowed by a battered agricultural sector hit by industrial decapitalization and technological obsolescence, low yields, shortages of inputs and machinery, the effects of climate change causing crop losses, and the effects of the US embargo.

In 2022, only 2.6% of investments were allocated to agriculture, compared to nearly 33% for business services, real estate activities, and rentals, which include new hotel construction, official data confirms. Dozens of measures in the last three decades have been insufficient to increase agricultural production.

The issue becomes even more complex considering inequities in households’ access to varied and quality foods due to availability, high prices, and stores that sell some of them in foreign currency that Cubans do not earn.

Other statistics corroborate that the majority of household spending in Cuban homes is dedicated to food, but due to high inflation, low salaries and pensions in Cuban pesos, people’s purchasing power has greatly diminished.

Through a rationing booklet, the government sells a certain amount of basic foods each month, insufficient from a nutritional point of view but a relief especially for low-income families and pensioners.

Experts argue that one of the challenges to consolidate food sovereignty in Cuba lies in the structural transformation of the food system, with greater incentives for local and territorial development.

Moreover, a significant part of the population in this Caribbean island maintains habits of consuming processed and fried foods, rich in sugars, saturated fats, and salt.

Studies from national institutions warn that overweight and obesity have increased in girls and boys, adolescents, and adults in recent years. The research correlates these indicators with the rise of different non-communicable chronic diseases such as hypertension, ischemic heart disease, diabetes mellitus, and certain types of cancer, among others.

Part of the team of the Bacoretto local development project, based in Guanabacoa, Havana. Its leader, Gabriel Perez (second from the left) highlights that the enterprise stands out for producing gluten-free flours, substitutes for wheat flour, beneficial for people with celiac disease, diabetes and hypertension. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Peanuts without sugar

Yanet Cofiño said, “I like to encourage mothers and fathers in the importance of feeding their children without adding sugar. Before the age of two, a baby should not and does not need to consume it, and unfortunately, many do. Sugar is even compared to a drug because it creates addiction. We see how cases of childhood diabetes have increased.”

At 35, this accountant founded Puro Mani Tita y Tito in 2021, a family business in the Marianao municipality in the capital based on the production of peanut butter and bars, without preservatives or additives.

The brand’s name refers to her affectionate names for her children Loretta and Reynaldo, a four-year-old girl and a year-and-a-half-old baby, respectively.

“My relationship with peanuts goes back years. My father makes ground and whole nut turrons. In the midst of the pandemic, I decided to make peanut butter. I had to investigate. I started by adding sugar, salt, oil, or honey. But people started coming who asked not to have any additives,” Cofiño explained when talking to IPS.

This was requested by “mothers to prepare breakfast or snacks for their children, people who go to the gym, and fitness enthusiasts looking for healthy energy foods for pre and post-training, as well as diabetics,” she noted.

According to Cofiño, at least ten cafes in Havana sell her products, and the number of customers is around a thousand.

“Many ask me how to make, for example, peanut butter, and I guide them. On other occasions, when selling, you have to explain to people how nutritious and healthy the product can be without the need for sugar,” she pointed out.

From six months old, Cofiño emphasized, “my girl consumes peanut butter and unsweetened yogurt. It’s a matter of education and habit. The foundation for healthy eating is in that stage.”

Some products marketed by Puro Maní Tita y Tito, a small family food company, established in the municipality of Marianao, in Havana. It specializes in the production of peanut butter and bars, without preservatives or additives. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Dried Fruits

The covid pandemic and the need for healthy and lasting food in a confinement environment were the genesis of Deshidratados Habana, a small private company specializing in food dehydration in the municipality of Playa in Havana.

“All foods have a high percentage of water. By removing part of that liquid, the development of microorganisms that deteriorate them is avoided. Dehydration is nothing more than a preservation process. However, there is a cultural barrier regarding these products,” said Ricardo Fernández, director of operations for the business officially established in December 2021.

With 26 workers, half of them women, the venture stands out for dehydrating fruits with nutritional value, “free of preservatives and added sugars, natural, ideal for consumption, not only for people with any pathology,” Fernandez, 37, a technician specialized in technological processes, explained.

He mentioned that the small company, which also ventures into the production of rice cakes, promotes the exchange on healthy eating through interest groups involving children and adolescents in the community.

With the Pharmacy and Food Institute of the University of Havana, he explained, “we maintain collaboration, as several of their students investigate here on food processes and contribute knowledge.”

Fernandez recalled that small producers without the possibility of accessing contracts with the industry, due to the low volume and quality of production, are left out of contracting schemes, lose crops, or lack incentives for the planting of certain varieties.

“However, these are productions that we can assimilate with our capacities. It happens with mango, habanero chili, and even hibiscus flower. Wherever we identify a product feasible to dehydrate and is being lost, we start thinking about how to take advantage of it,” he said.

For Fernández, it would be necessary to have “more people dedicated to these processes. The experience is favorable. More and more people are aware of healthy foods and demand them. Perhaps in some cases, the price may not be affordable enough. We need to perfect the production process, utilize capacities, improve yields, and make these products also become part of our identity.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

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