Here in the US, many individuals and companies are making a livelihood around food–promoting its deliciousness through sped up how-to videos, judging competitors on how well they can prepare it and many profit from it. There is even a name given to people that just love eating the newest foods and keep abreast of the happening food fads. But how much of us knows about food? Its origin and how it’s grown? How to prepare and unlock food’s full potential? Where it comes from? How long it takes to get to the plate? Growing up in Trinidad some, not all of what we ate came from our own yard. Or the neighbor’s. I remember my mother going to this one woman in the Marabella market, South Trinidad to buy eggs. Till the day I migrated to the US she’s only ever bought eggs from her, a full-figured woman of East Indian descent. She sat at a table piled high with dozens of crates of eggs from her own chickens; I’ve only ever known her as the ‘egg lady’.
For a time now, since I came out of culinary school I’ve been more fascinated with understanding where my food comes from. Living in the US where industrial food system giants have such a hold on consumers. With studies that show over 40% of the grocery store items being sold should not be considered real food because of the added genetically modified and artificial ingredients. And a large percentage of consumers have joined the alternative food system movement to become more conscious of what they ingest and their moral footprint, it still can be a challenge when standing in the grocery isles trying to buy something as simple as tomatoes. How was it grown? Was it imported? And why is it so expensive, who profits? Well, I ask myself those questions 🙂
My Ma and I have conversations all the time on food. The recipes she’d see be executed on cooking channels (they’ve brainwashed her), foods I cook at home and for the blog, and the weight we both lost last year because of changes in our diet. She would always say “Leigh, why don’t you go back to eating like you once did in Trinidad?”
Ah-ha! I got it! A 2017 goal I’ve been working on: highlight the foods I ate growing up in the Caribbean and my farm to table way of living. The fruits, the vegetables, the people that grow and sell them, and how crops and livestock are celebrated by cooking and eating its nourishment!
I set out to shadow Donette Ismael for a week to learn more on the agricultural system, foods grown in St Lucia and the linkage of local farmers and purveyors to the tourism industry and to locals on the island. In early 2016, Donette was appointed Agriculture Liaison Officer for the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Board (SLHTA). The SLHTA is a private non-profit member organization that functions as the ‘official organization and national spokesperson” for the hospitality industry. Donette’s primary role is to head the SLHTAs Virtual Agriculture Clearing House (VACH) initiative. A program that aid local farmers of all sizes with farming needs and connect them to hotels, wholesale and retail buyers. Education on best farming practices and organic farming, cooperative programs, sponsored resources such as green houses and a platform to sell their goods on a larger scale are some of the great incentives the VACH provides to rural farmers around the country. The SLHTA, Virtual Agriculture Clearing House program is a great program for an island where there is a direct linkage between agriculture and tourism–two of the most important sectors on the island. Through a phone app, farmers can connect with involved parties to share available crops and other details.
- St Lucia is known for growing hearty ground provisions, pineapples and bananas. Now, farmers are being creative by growing other fruits and vegetables locally.
“The gradual increase on purchasing of local agriculture produce by the hospitality sector signifies reductions in the importation bill. This is tourism dollars directly in the pockets of the farmers creating the ripple of positive effects for the economy of St Lucia. This is just the first steps of fulfilling some of the mandates of the VACH.”*
We wasted no time. The second day of my week long stay in St Lucia started early. First, with a fun trip to the Castries Market to get a sense of what’s grown and sold on the island and to meet Donette’s mother who sells fruits and vegetables at the market. Holder of a communications degree, Donette attended college in Cuba and on school break she happily returned to the island of her birth to assist her mother sell produce at the market. An opportunity that led to her having the highest appreciation, understanding and pride for agriculture and what the farmers do for the country: caring for the land, its crops and harvesting your own food.
This task, a feat that is not an easy one is a key to understanding food. It’s why I frequent the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. For a chance to speak to the farmers and they tell the best ways to treat, store and cook produce.
Oh, but my 101 lesson didn’t stop at the market, we jumped in the jeep which most Lucians drive because of the steep hilly landscape the country is known for and set off on a farm visit. Though we got to our first farm visit late in the day, as the sun set, I could still see the tireless efforts of the farmhands on the last leg of their 12 hour shift. Seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, farmers care for the land, its crops, work with other farmers and the VACH making sure that the push to eat more locally grown produce resonates not only with the hotels on the island but with locals. As the farmhands led us to the area where watermelons, local honey dews and cantaloupes are grown, my country instincts kicked in. As the low grass brushed my ankles and in dimly lit lighting, my feet knew where to step without putting me in mud puddles or to step on the striving vines of low growing fruits and veggies. This farm known by only the farmer’s name grows melons, bananas, green figs, the juiciest tomatoes I’ve had, cucumbers and to the front entrance, white guava trees stood. What a treat it was for the farmhands to pick ripe tomatoes to give to us, a welcomed gift as we exited the farm that ended our day.
The SLHTA, Virtual Agriculture Clearing House (VACH) is only in its first year but from my view, this program looks to be the next best thing after sliced bread for an island trying to reduce its import bill. And as much as Donette and the SLHTA work effectively and efficiently to make it that way it’s not without setbacks like pest and last year’s tropical storm Matthew brought some landslides and high flood waters. Leaving farmers without crops to sell. Massy Stores, one of the biggest conglomerates in the Caribbean that buys from local farmers on the island to stock their grocery produce shelves went weeks without having some produce as they reassured customers to be patient as they re-stock as soon as possible, Donette recounts. Though the goal of the VACH is to promote buying and eating local, it is a necessity to work with the food and beverage distributors to provide grocery stores and hotels in times of need; the distributions companies buys produce from local farmers as well.
My time spent with Donette learning about St Lucia, with long drives through many villages to get to the farms, experiencing landmarks like Plas Kassav, listening to local soca sung in creole with its hilarious double meanings and the friendly people made my quest to learn about the agriculture-tourism initiative put in place by the SLHTA to promote the farm to table lifestyle a fun one. I’m happy that for my stay on the island there was an abundance of locally grown fruits and vegetables to cook, given by the life-giving and nurturing Mother Nature. How are we cooking them? That is where SLHTA’s Apprenticeship Coordinator, Wendel George steps into the spotlight. My next blog post will be a delicious one, stay tuned!
* Taken from the Saint Lucia Business Focus bi-monthly magazine, issue no.89.