Junk Food in Cuba, the State is the Main Supplier

Yenisel Rodríguez Pérez

Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes

HAVANA TIMES – Weeks ago, Margaret Chan, the director of the World Health Organization, visited Cuba. While the official publicly praised the country’s pharmaceutical industry, she spoke of the need to pay attention to the issue of a healthy and balanced diet (with the prudence that such a pronouncement requires, of course).

She reminded the officials present at the meeting that the short-term profits generated by fast food are eclipsed by the high costs of treating chronic, non-transmissible conditions associated to their frequent consumption.

It is clear the official was well-informed about the high morbidity rates associated to the country’s poor eating habits.

Despite the relevance and timeliness of the issue addressed by the director of the WHO, the Cuban media made no reference to her comments at all, as part of what I consider to be a deliberate omission.

Despite the fact the issue is widely addressed by television programs dealing with health issues, I don’t recall ever seeing a public debate on the role that Cuba’s State food industry has played in the development of poor eating habits among Cubans, particularly in recent times, when the science of nutrition has made considerable progress.

Today, the menus at Cuba’s State food industry establishments are a litany of super-greasy processed cold meats, extremely salty minced meats, snacks fried in saturated oils that are several days old, soft drinks and rancid sandwiches.

This way, the commercial departments of the State food industry cut back on production costs and continue to offer a limited range of high-calorie products that are detrimental to the health of low-income consumers, which are the main customers of the State food industry.

This reveals a lack of a real political will aimed at designing healthier options that give consumers a broader range of choices.

There have been attempts by the State food industry to offer the public healthier options in recent times. Ultimately, however, they have proven demagogic strategies that have sought to conceal the precarious condition the sector is in and they perished when they ran into the habitual setbacks and absurdities of the system. An illustrative example were the short-lived vegetarian restaurants.

Some of today’s isolated initiatives, like the sale of natural juices, have only intensified the problem, as the facilities lack the infrastructure needed to store and sell these natural products. The juices become fermented in the dispensers before they are sold to the public, causing as many health problems as the most synthetic of soft drinks.

Of course, the Cuban State is far from assuming a responsible attitude concerniing this, and regional initiatives like Plato de buen comer (“A Healthy Dish”) implemented by the Mexican government to encourage healthy eating habits have eclipsed its efforts. Likewise, the initiative of the Ecuadorian government aimed at raising taxes on junk food as a means of discouraging the excessive consumption of these products.

Another example of the double standards that characterize our authorities is that, after rubbing elbows with ecological and alternative diet movements around the world, they end up validating the hegemony of economic interests through their social policies.

5 thoughts on “Junk Food in Cuba, the State is the Main Supplier

  • Its so big…. lol

  • Carlyle, my wife had a similar eye-opening experience only days after arriving in San Francisco for the first time. We were on our way to the Monterey Jazz Festival south of San Francisco and decided to take the scenic route by way of the scores of fruit and vegetable stands that dot the highway between SF and Monterey. Since most of the vendors were Mexican and spoke Spanish she was quite comfortable asking questions about they grew the fresh strawberries, summer squash and a variety of other late summer harvests on sale. At these roadside fruit stands were whole families, fathers, mothers, children and babies, are pitching in to help sell the week’s harvest. Afterwards, she openly mused how it is one thing to argue that Cuban farmers lack the resources to effectively cultivate Cuban land but when she saw how small migrant farmers somehow managed to scratch out a living on less than 10 acres, she knew there was no excuse why Cubans can’t do the same.

  • My wife was amazed when she first visited Canada from Cuba where we live, by the range of fresh vegetables available to the public. Caulifower which she loves with a cheese sauce, broccoli with its deep green colour remaining when steamed, sweet corn which she loves with butter, crisp carrots, celery, brussel sprouts, savoy cabbages and a full range of Chinese vegetables for stir fries and several varieties and colours of tomatoes. Whereas in Cuba the appearance of potatoes at the market or at street stalls results in a rush of people hoping to buy some before the supply runs out, she found in abundance different varieties and sizes – including little potatoes which when boiled and coated with butter can be shaken up with chopped mint or parsley.
    Similarly she was introduced to fruit like Kiwi fruit (Chinese gooseberry), strawberries, raspberies, a range of grapes, satsumas and tangerines.
    There is no reason why all these fruits and vegetables can not be grown in Cuba where there are hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land lying fallow and reverting to bush. There is however one problem and that is the lack of competence or concern by the Cuban Government controlled by the Castro family regime. Strange when one considers that their grandfather immigrated from Spain as an agricultral worker. There are thousands of Cubans with little – if anything to do yet the sole agricultural program is the so-called urban farming which is used as a propoganda tool, but which in reality produces comparitively little.
    To control food supplies the regime has food rationing, this in a country which is a natural outdoor greenhouse. A visit to the TRD Caribe SA shops demonstrates that the regime (TRD Caribe is part of the GAESA Empire owned by the Ministry of Defence) is importing canned foods from the USA, canned tomatoes from Spain and for non-vegetarians, frozen chicken from Brazil, Mexico, Canada and the USA.
    Poor Cubans with their average income of just over $20 per month they have to subsist on whatever they can obtain – these are the rich pickings of the Revolution and the Castro family regime.

  • VeggieGirl, my girlfriend and I found it very difficult to keep to our plant based diet while traveling Cuba. One would assume that with all of the vegetable and fruit stands, this would be simple, but the quality and choices varied dramatically from day to day, even from the same vendor. And this is assuming a traveler will have access (as we did) to a kitchen in the casa that they’re is staying in. My advice is to lower your expectations and enjoy the veggie hunting adventure. Save travels to you.

  • As a vegetarian tourist whose primary destination is Cuba, I would LOVE to see a movement towards more vegetarian choices, countrywide.

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