The concrete sprawl of Havana seemed an incongruous setting for Consuelo Torres to be clutching a clump of organically grown and freshly picked spinach.
But she had just been shopping at one of the many state-run urban vegetable gardens developed in vacant lots here in the capital and in other cities and towns across Cuba. The gardens are part of a new effort by the socialist government to ease food shortages and nutritional problems that have beset the nation since the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991.
"Being able to buy more vegetables is a health issue. Now we can take in more of the vitamins our bodies need and give a little more balance to our diets," Torres, 50, said on a recent afternoon while standing on Havana's busy Fifth Avenue in front of a plot of crops in what used to be a garbage dump. "There is still not enough food to go around, but the gardens certainly help the situation."
Torres is not the only one keen on the idea. This Caribbean island has what is believed to be the most extensive urban agriculture program in Latin America, with more than 2,730 government operated gardens checkering the country's 169 municipalities. They employ about 22,000 workers and sell two dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs directly to consumers at prices as much as half that of market levels.
On a recent afternoon at an urban garden in the shadows of Revolution Square in Havana, Juana Vega, 55, was relishing the idea that she had just bought carrots, eggplant and garlic for her family with relative ease.
"Having these gardens set up in the city is a form of creative help," she said. "It is creative on the part of the government, which I feel is trying to find ways to solve Cuba's problems and improve our lives where they can."
During an official visit here last week, Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, discussed the gardens with President Fidel Castro. He said he is considering a similar strategy to make food staples more available and provide another source of employment in metropolitan areas in a country where an estimated 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.
In addition to the urban plots, the Cuban program has given rise to 4,347 larger and more intensive gardens, generally located on the outskirts of cities and towns and producing fruit in addition to vegetables and herbs.
This country of 11.5 million people has been forced to pursue unconventional food production since the former Soviet Union stopped its annual largess of billions of dollars a decade ago. The donations from Moscow included bountiful amounts of agricultural products and farming supplies, such as fertilizer, pesticides, animal feed, seeds and fuel.
The vegetables grown in urban gardens are for the most part organic, largely due to the dearth of chemical crop treatments. While playing up the health benefits of organic produce, the Castro government casts much of the blame for food scarcities on a 37-year-old economic embargo maintained by the United States. But the problem also stems from inefficiency and a lack of individual incentives within the state-dominated agricultural system.
In contributing to the slightly improved food situation, the urban gardens--called agroponicos or organoponicos--have been able to circumvent many of the logistical hurdles and other problems that afflict agriculture in the countryside. There is no need to transport vegetables grown on these municipal plots because people buy them on the spot. That eliminates virtually all the cumbersome state bureaucracy that usually stands between farmers and consumers.
"This means fewer post-harvest losses because no transportation or storage is involved and there is less handling of vegetables," said Fernando Robayo, the representative in Cuba for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
On weekends in Havana, long lines spill onto the sidewalks in front of urban gardens, where customers wait to buy vegetables that are fresher and apparently more bountiful than in state markets, which on any given morning can run out of produce in a matter of hours.
The urban gardens, which are equipped with relatively modern irrigation systems that help generate high yields, have been one of the most successful of a series of government initiatives to decentralize agricultural production from large state farms to municipal and individual levels. Many state enterprises, schools and hospitals grow some of their own food and raise livestock, while the government has helped thousands of families and individuals to set up home gardens, plant fruit trees and raise chickens and rabbits.
Some neighborhoods produce up to 30 percent of their food. More than 540,000 tons of food were produced for consumption by Havana residents last year.
Furthermore, recent planning laws have made the use of land for food production a priority, although there are many needy areas where urban gardens have yet to be established.
Overall, the government estimates that 117,000 people work in urban agriculture and that the gardens account for about half the vegetables grown in Cuba. Officials said urban gardens are expected to increase production by more than a third next year, reflecting a policy of linking wages to productivity.
"These gardens are important in a labor sense. They are not cooperatives and they are not completely state run in that we can pay workers a little more," explained Alvaro Garcia, who is in charge of an urban garden in the Miramar section of Havana.
While improved yields from the gardens should allow much of the country to meet the recommended daily allowance of 300 grams of vegetables per person in 2000, that will not be the case for Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the largest and second largest cities where 3.2 million inhabitants reside.
The two metropolitan areas will have to rely on traditional sources of vegetables such as cooperatives and state farms.
Cuba, whose people continue to receive government rations four decades after Castro came to power in a revolution, has yet to recover from the dramatic decline in food availability of at least 60 percent that took place between 1991 and 1995.
Carlos Lage, a vice president of the ruling Council of State, who has been in charge of efforts to resuscitate Cuba's depressed economy, recently told a meeting of municipal leaders that "the food situation is still insufficient . . . but there has been some progress."