Living on Cuban Food Ration Isn't Easy
Monday, July 2, 2007; 3:48 PM
HAVANA -- No one on this communist-run island dies from starvation, but every month Cubans on the "universal ration" must use ingenuity and organization to ensure everyone gets enough to eat.
For 30 days, I lived on a similar program. I spent less than $17 for a month's sustenance, dropped nine pounds and learned _ like Cubans _ to budget carefully, plan meals ahead, buy only what was necessary and never throw food away.
Most importantly, I realized that like most Americans, I take food for granted, assuming I'll always get what I want when I want it.
Cuba's ration system began in 1962, to guarantee a low-priced basket of basic foods just as the U.S. cut off trade with the island, sparking food shortages. Initially characterized as temporary, the program remained as Cuba struggled to feed its people, turning to the Eastern bloc for most of its food.
Today, Cuba spends $1 billion a year to give the island's 11.2 million citizens a subsidized ration including rice, legumes, potatoes, bread, eggs and a small amount of meat. The government estimates the ration provides a third of the 3,300 calories the average Cuban consumes daily.
The rationed products, which cost consumers about $1.20, would cost more than $58 if purchased at the overpriced Cuban supermarkets for foreigners known as the "shopping," or about $50 at the average U.S. grocery store.
For my project, I allotted myself the same items on the ration, plus an average salary of $16.60 to buy the rest of my food. During June, I ate little animal protein, no dairy products, very little fat, but probably consumed more rice and beans than I had in a year. When I could, I ate fruit and vegetables daily.
Limited in what they can eat, Cubans spend much time thinking about their next meal. I found myself obsessing about food as well. Would I have enough money at the end of the month to buy vegetables? Would all those potatoes make me fat?
Cubans told me the farmers markets were expensive, but I didn't realize just how costly until I lived on their limited plan. A big papaya costs more than a day's wages.
More than half of Cubans have access to some foreign currency, whether from tips from tourists or remittances from abroad. With $50 a month, a family can buy additional cooking oil, pork or even a rare piece of beef at the "shopping."
But the rest of Cubans have to be creative. Neighbors trade and buy and sell rationed products to get what they need. They purchase milk, butter and yogurt sold surreptitiously outside the government bakery. Some engage in petty theft, such as restaurant workers who skim cheese off sandwiches.
I traded someone a pound of squid for six eggs. When I ran out of coffee, I bought rationed coffee from people who preferred extra food.
I learned firsthand how Cuba's tightly woven society ensures that relatives, neighbors, friends, and co-workers always eat. Several Cubans gave me part of their rations, refusing money or food in exchange. A Cuban colleague offered to share her homemade spaghetti lunch. A friend said his family invited the same elderly neighbor to lunch every day for years.
Despite their generosity, Cubans remain anxious about food, especially those who remember the "Special Period" _ wartime-like austerity measures imposed in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and the island's gross domestic product plunged by 35 percent.
Cubans experienced true hunger during those years, missing many meals, eating very small and unappetizing ones, going months without meat or fresh produce. But the ration ensured no one starved to death.
The crisis eased after 1993 when the government broke up state farms into smaller cooperatives and individual farms, and opened farmers markets where producers could sell crops at unrestricted prices after meeting government production quotas. Cheap meals at workplaces and schools and affordable street food also help.
Still, stereotypes about Cuba's food situation persist. Visitors are often surprised to find a somewhat plump population, and recent government studies show 30 percent of Cuban adults are overweight.
With all the starch on the ration, and high produce costs, it would be easy to gain weight.
With my American phobia of carbohydrates, I gave away most of my four pounds of potatoes early into the month. Without those carbs, and without access to the cheap meals many government workers get, I dropped nine pounds in 30 days.
I marked the end of the month modestly on Sunday with a small dinner for Cuban and foreigner friends, cooking a mixed bean soup with sausages and a tomato base that my late mother loved. I also made corn bread, a watercress salad with tomatoes and avocados and a pumpkin flan.
Today, I return to a modified version of my diet for another month in hopes of losing more weight.
Legumes remain my primary protein source as I add some fish and chicken. I'll stay away from most beef, pork and dairy products, but will now add nonfat yogurt to my diet, along with more fruit and vegetables.
Most importantly, I'll eschew the chocolate bars, microwave popcorn, and potato chips I love.
And I'll try to stop taking food for granted.