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Havana: Inspiration for urban food policy

By Incredible Edible

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Havana, Cuba, is often touted as one of the great examples of cities that have radically altered the way their citizens live and work through the introduction of urban agriculture. Urban farming saved the city when the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to a sudden oil shortage, a deep impact on the economy and a destabilised food system. Countries across the world, including the UK, can learn from the swift reaction in Havana as we face increasing economic hardship, soil degradation and a changing climate, all putting the security of our food at risk.

In Havana, following proactive support from the local government, around 8% of all land in Havana is under cultivation producing organic food for the city’s inhabitants.

Figures vary from year to year, but around 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed in Havana are produced in the city’s urban farms and gardens. Studies have shown that engaging with and living near to urban food growing helps people make healthier dietary choices and that people who participate in community gardening eat more fruit and vegetables. Cuba seems to be a case in point; the caloric intake of Cubans matches that of Europeans, but relies on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables. It’s a low-fat diet, which makes obesity, and the health challenges that come with it – rare in Cuba.

Urban agriculture in Havana takes various forms ranging from private gardens, to state-owned cooperative farms and small family-owned farms, but the most widespread are the ‘popular gardens’ (huertos populares) which were launched in 1991. These gardens are small plots of state-owned land that are turned over for cultivation by individuals and community groups, primarily as a solution for providing food security. Most of the land is made up of otherwise disused pockets of land and they are leased out for free to residents, who usually live very close to the land they are assigned. Within the first 5 years of the launch of the popular gardens, there were over 26,000 plots taken up by Havana’s residents.

But, support from the government doesn’t stop at making land available for free near people’s homes. The Ministry of Agriculture has a special unit which exists to promote and facilitate all this urban food growing. They play a hugely important role in the start up and functioning of the popular gardens and also support Havana’s Horticulture Clubs, of which there are over 400 providing practical support and opportunities for collaboration between residents. The municipality provides high-quality compost, seeds and saplings as well as research and development services to maximise the viability of urban food production and has a team of extension workers – mostly women who live in the neighbourhoods in which they work – to support and encourage the community to use all available land and teach people how to grow food successfully and using sustainable practices in an urban setting.

There is so much that cities here in the UK can learn from the Havana example as we navigate the coming years. It shouldn’t take an economic collapse and drastic food shortages for authorities to take urban food growing seriously. Studies show that we could produce over 40% of the fruit and veg our cities consume with the help of urban agriculture.

With Cities across the UK working towards Right to Grow policies, we should all look to examples like Havana, Rosario and New York as shining examples of what is possible when authorities hand power to the people, and we all get growing.

Read more: The Post Cold War Cuban Food Experiment