Public markets have recently exploded in popularity in the United States, and their myriad benefits are increasingly well documented. South of the mainland, Puerto Rico is just beginning to develop a market system that supports local farmers, but their long-standing food distribution centers offer important lessons for the continental US, particularly with regards to school lunches–a very hot topic these days.
First, let’s explore the Mercado Urbano in San Juan, located on a grassy public plaza along the ocean. There, forty vendors sell a carefully managed product mix of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, value-added products, coffee and rum. The market is unique in that all of the vendors have loans with the Economic Development Bank, who approached the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture with the idea of creating a farmers market. The bank hoped that a market would provide their debtors with an opportunity to sell directly to customers who would provide enough revenue to build their businesses and put them in a better position to pay back their loans. Thus far, the market has demonstrated its benefit to both farmers and consumers: it will expand in June from operating monthly to weekly.
On to the Narnjito Distribution Center, one of eight centers around the island that receives and buys local produce from regional farmers, sorts and packages the produce, and then distributes orders to San Juan-area schools. The typical list of products received and shipped through the centers include: eggs, tomatoes, yucca, plantains, bananas, peppers, onions, squash, melon, sweet potatoes, cabbage, jars of sofrito, peeled oranges, and cut up and packed pineapple and melon. Farmers make deliveries throughout the week and the produce is delivered to schools on Mondays and Tuesdays.
In the continental US, fresh produce is the exception rather than the rule at lunchtime, when children feast on processed food laden with preservatives. In order to get healthy food into our schools, we would be well-served to repair the connection between farms and schools. The local distribution centers in Puerto Rico provide a compelling alternative and a way to further the great projects already underway.