How This Innovative Collective Is Honoring Puerto Rico's Culinary Heritage and Fighting for Food Sovereignty
El Depa is preserving the island’s crops while supporting a community of farmers growing food that is better for both the people and the land.
Mornings begin quietly on a small communal farm called OtraCosa in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Steep mountains delay the sunrise, providing an extra hour of peace before the day begins. There's coffee and conversation, then work: tending farm animals, planting, building and repairing structures, foraging and harvesting. Fresh herbs, such as culantro, and field peas, such as gandules, are collected for the communal kitchen, where resident chef Verónica Quiles Maldonado works wonders. The effort required to support themselves from the land is substantial—they live off the grid, using solar power and collecting rainwater—but the farm residents remain deeply connected to the broader needs of their island home.
That's why many of the residents volunteer for the neighboring nonprofit El Departamento de la Comida (or El Depa, as it's commonly known). Tara Rodríguez Besosa—one of El Depa's founding members and a queer architect and activist— envisions a Puerto Rico where crops that reflect the richness of the island's culture are grown by and for its people. Food sovereignty—the right of a community to have access to healthy, culturally appropriate food grown in a sustainable way—is central to the work of the collective. "It's about making the necessary connections between our health, the health of our ecosystem, the autonomy of our communities, and the right to healthy food that is not dependent on outside sources," says Rodríguez Besosa, who uses they/them pronouns.
Rodríguez Besosa's forward-thinking work began in 2010 when they co-founded El Depa as a CSA collective that connected local farmers to those wishing to support them. Slowly, it evolved into a restaurant and local produce market, and, in 2019, into a nonprofit that supports local farmers with resources and education.
Calls for food sovereignty in Puerto Rico have become more urgent in recent years. In 2017, the island was battered by Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people, caused billions of dollars in damage and destroyed 80% of the crops grown on the island. Storms now appear to be worsening as a result of climate change, and an unprecedented "swarm" of nearly 10,000 earthquakes shook the island in 2020— toppling homes and crippling the already-delicate power grid. These environmental factors are further complicated by colonialism and U.S. government policies. An estimated 85% of food in Puerto Rico is imported, due in part to the 1920 Jones Act, which limits the island's trade capacity and drives up food prices. In 1947, Operation Bootstrap—a strategy by then-governor Luis Muñoz Marín to industrialize the island—led to an abrupt shift toward monoculture that to this day prioritizes growing profitable exports like sugar, corn, bananas and coffee over foods that could feed the island. In all, these compounding factors create the perfect storm that has led to an unsustainable food system.
Today, a small team of volunteers and staff at El Depa are working to weather that storm. They distribute heirloom seeds free of charge, loan out farm equipment, share farming skills and hold workshops. Their vision is to support a resilient, decentralized network of small-scale farms that can supply the island's residents with an array of nutritious, sustainable foods, even in the most challenging times. To Rodríguez Besosa, the future looks like "many crops, many colors and nutrients, from different small-scale projects, grown from seeds given to us with stories from our ancestors."
Seed saving and distribution is critical to this vision. "There is no food sovereignty without seed sovereignty," says Rodríguez Besosa. "After Hurricane Maria, when many farmers lost most if not all of their crops and trees, seeds became essential for rebuilding our food system. They also carry knowledge: as seeds are being shared, planted and saved, so is our culture of these crops."
Inspired by their experiences recovering from Hurricane Maria—and more recently coping with COVID-19—members of El Depa are developing a production kitchen where small-scale farmers can make sauces, pickles and other shelf-stable staples from the crops they grow. They hope to create opportunities for farmers to extend the shelf life of their produce while simultaneously creating healthful products that will withstand the island's storms.
"No project is too small. But some are too big," says Rodríguez Besosa, explaining that this is one of the collective's core values. "We are not trying to feed a whole island. We're trying to support the island to feed itself."
Key Ingredients in the OtraCosa Kitchen
1. Aji dulce (Capsicum chinense)
These small peppers resemble habaneros but are sweet, not hot. They grow well in Puerto Rico's climate and are used in many dishes.
2. Amaranth (celosia)
Is a leafy plant that is cultivated for both its leaves and seeds. You can use the leaves as you would spinach, while the protein-packed seeds are often sold dried and can be cooked and prepared as a grain.
3. Caribbean pumpkin (calabaza taina dorada)
This squash variety grows well in tropical climates. It has a sweet taste similar to butternut squash and is often used in soups and stews.
4. Culantro (recao)
Is a leafy green herb with an intense flavor similar to cilantro. It is a key ingredient in sofrito, a blend of aromatics that forms the base of many dishes in Puerto Rico.
5. Fresh pigeon peas (gandules verdes)
Are a staple in Puerto Rico, when they are often cooked with rice or stewed. The small, round legume is similar in size to an English pea.
This large tropical fruit can be eaten in both its unripe and ripe state. Unripe papaya, called green papaya, has a mild flavor and a denser flesh that can be sliced or shredded.
7. Malanga & yautia roots
Are starchy root vegetables similar to potatoes but with an even starchier texture and a nutty taste. They can be roasted, boiled, fried or steamed. Both must be cook before eating.
Recipes to Try
Asopao de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Stew)
Guanimes con Berenjena Guisada (Guanimes with Stewed Eggplant)
Ensalada de la Huerta con Vinagreta de Guayaba (Harvest Salad with Guava Vinaigrette)
Sopa de Calabaza Rostizada (Roasted Pumpkin Soup)
Raíces Isleñas con Pesto de Cilantrillo y Aguacate (Island Roots with Cilantro Pesto & Avocado)
Dulce de Papaya con Jengibre y Cúrcuma (Candied Green Papaya with Ginger & Turmeric)
VON DIAZ is a writer, documentary producer and author of Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Atlanta, she focuses on food, culture and identity in her work. She teaches Food Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and her forthcoming book explores the foodways of islands around the globe.
This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, April 2021.