“There is no food”: Coping with Food Scarcity in Cuba Today

The socialist food-rationing system in Cuba has recently undergone significant changes. Reductions in the amount of rationed foods at state-subsidized prices mean that households must now purchase increasingly expensive foods in government-run stores or through the informal economy, all with limited peso-based salaries. This situation is a continual source of stress and anxiety for many Cubans. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and along with it the loss of its most significant trade partner, Cuba entered the “Special Period” of economic hardship. Although new, import-oriented trade agreements have improved the quantity and quality of food available, supplies have never returned to Soviet-era levels. Many residents of Santiago de Cuba—where I have researched household food consumption since 2008—have struggled daily with economic hardship and food shortages. Where once the Cuban government was the major provider of foods, this labor has now shifted to individuals and families. By accompanying Cubans on their daily food-shopping expeditions, I witnessed firsthand the work necessary to keep families fed.

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A food market in Santiago de Cuba. Photo by Hanna Garth.

Maria Julia, a middle-class single mother living in Santiago de Cuba who I have studied for the past nine years, told me about a wave of food shortages in December 2014 and January 2015. She was specifically concerned with shortages of chicken, a staple protein in Cuba: “There was no chicken in the rations or in the [unsubsidized] markets in those months, and even into the summer chicken was hard to find,” she commented. 

Maria Julia also remarked that there were changes in the food provided by her son’s school: “Let’s not even talk about the school food—it is grave. Some days the children do not eat at all. Before [the school] always provided lunch and a snack. Imagine how much money and time I have to spend now!” Maria Julia has always counted on the state-provided free lunch and snack at her son’s public school, but now she is faced with an additional task of either sending him to school with a packed lunch or finding time to leave work to prepare and serve him lunch. She views either option as a heavy burden on her time and money. Maria Julia’s predicament is just one example of the forms of stress that Cubans deal with related to food access.

Even with these scarcities, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently honored Cuba for maintaining extremely low levels of hunger and malnutrition. Although the current food ration does not stretch as far as it once did, the state still provides about half of an individual’s nutritional requirements at very little cost. The Cuban government also provides supplements and additional rationed items for children, the elderly, and those with certain chronic illnesses. This safety net is crucial for preventing crisis levels of food scarcity. Yet even with half of daily caloric needs assured, households nevertheless face the challenge of acquiring the remaining half. 

Food is a reflection of identity in Cuba, as it is in many other parts of the world. In the context of Cuba’s post-Soviet economy, with a scarcity if not outright absence of food that meets local cultural standards, many of the families I encountered must relentlessly struggle to preserve these culinary traditions. And so, while the vast majority of Cubans have access to adequate nutrition, they nonetheless invest immense time and energy innovating a range of strategies to cope with this situation.

Coping with Scarcity

Based on my research, I have documented several such strategies used by Cubans to cope with the changing food system. The first I call discursive resistance (see Garth 2013). To hear Cubans say no hay comida (there is no food) as they sit before a full plate might seem confusing, but is not uncommon. I have come to see it as a way of expressing that the food that is available does not meet local standards for culturally appropriate meals. This position is a socio-political commentary: to disparage the available food is a way of rejecting the recent changes in Cuba’s food system. As such, even as people refuse to acknowledge the available food as adequate, they nevertheless consume it. These discursive acts, then, serve as a form of symbolic rejection.

The second strategy is to pragmatically accept new foods through culinary innovation. As certain ingredients become scarcer and shifting international trade relations bring different foods to the island, some are becoming more innovative in the kitchen: they substitute an ingredient or two, either making a slight variation in a dish they still consider to be authentic or creating a new, hybrid meal. Innovators exchange recipes with one another or draw upon the cookbooks and shows of Cuba’s most renowned celebrity chef, Nitza Villapol (see Garth 2014). While this may seem like an easy resolution, it did not come easily for most of the Cuban families that I knew because their identities were so strongly linked to traditional foods. 

The third, and most common, response to food scarcity is luchando la vida (struggling for life): the arduous task of finding ingredients seen as essential to what is considered a decent meal. Yordanis, a young man in his mid-twenties who struggles to make ends meet, explained that he, like most Cubans, has to “struggle to find food in the streets” when the monthly ration has been consumed. With reductions in state provisioning, Cubans increasingly rely on local social networks to obtain ingredients.

Hopes for the Future

After discussing food issues with me, Aida, a middle-aged elementary school teacher, pondered her future: “I would like peace and tranquility, to see my children have fewer problems . . . finish their studies and become someone in life.” 

Aida, like most Cubans I spoke with, hoped for an easier, less stressful future. Many also wished for affordable access to the variety of foods necessary to maintain local culinary traditions and a more dignified standard of living. Despite some increased access to consumer goods, these reforms will not necessarily mean the end of la lucha. Rather, it may signify yet another iteration of the struggles Cubans have confronted for decades, and, by all accounts, over which they will continue to prevail.

References

Garth, Hanna. 2013. “Resistance and Household Food Consumption in Santiago de Cuba.” In Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy, edited by Carole Counihan and Valeria Siniscalchi, 47–60. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

_____. 2014. “‘They Started to Make Variants’: The Impact of Nitza Villapol’s Cookbooks and Television Shows on Contemporary Cuban Cooking.” Food, Culture, and Society 17, no. 3: 359–76.