Growing up in Puerto Rico, “apoya lo local” echoed as an anthem. It was and still is a homage to our ancestral resilience in the face of Spanish dominion and American influence. Yet within the supermarket’s aisle, we all faced a conundrum. In the meticulously arranged produce section, the yuca and ñame marked with “Hecho en Puerto Rico,” the seal of our homeland’s sweat and toil, competed against the far more affordably priced imports.
On the island, the simple act of grocery shopping metamorphosed into a decision fraught with economic implications. Backing our roots was often a very expensive form of activism.
Puerto Rico faces a sobering reality today: Even with a tropical climate that allows farmers to grow food year-round, the island imports more than 80% of its food, leaving its people, including farmers and chefs, at the mercy of outside powers, such as the Jones Act. Established in the 1920s, this law mandates that maritime cargo transport between U.S. ports be exclusively handled by ships owned and operated by the U.S., resulting in increased shipping costs to Puerto Rico and other non-continental U.S. lands that rely on these imports. The act has been cited repeatedly over the years as a factor in the island’s economic and budgetary troubles.
In addition, the higher shipping costs associated with the Jones Act have put Puerto Rican farmers at a competitive disadvantage, straining the economic viability of local agriculture and leading to reduced production and higher prices for consumers on the island. Many Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) can’t afford to “apoyar lo local” (support local) or, more transparently, pay a premium to buy from the local producers. The island has been in an economic recession since 2006.
Though agriculture once thrived, employing a significant portion of the workforce on the island, it now accounts for less than 1% of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product (GDP). Natural disasters, such as hurricanes Maria and Irma, as well as multiple earthquakes further exposed the vulnerability of the island’s imported food supply chains, propelling the need for a more sustainable approach.
Boricuas have never sat idly by, especially during the challenges that the last decade has brought. In fact, visionary Puerto Rican farmers and chefs across various sectors are leading a transformative movement to combat the island’s food import dependency.
At Cocina Abierta, a restaurant in San Juan, chef Manuel Massa is leading the charge in showcasing the potential of local ingredients, such as seafood, pineapple, avocado and an array of root vegetables. Committed to sourcing 80% to 92% of the restaurant’s ingredients from the island, Massa and his team create innovative dishes that celebrate Puerto Rico’s agricultural bounty.
“Including a local product on the menu, on a consistent level, is a challenge. Even on an island, fishing is very volatile due to the climate conditions. Even connecting with the local producers is quite tedious,” Massa says. “The imported produce would be easier and more cost effective, but that’s exactly why [sourcing locally] is a priority for us: Although it’s not the easiest path, it does have the most impact long-term.”
Local farms and the people who work them play a huge role in creating change. Family-run Frutos del Guacabo in Manatí, co-led by Efren Robles, uses a model similar to the co-ops; they distribute agricultural products from different parts of Puerto Rico to areas across the island and collaborate closely with chefs, such as Massa, to grow specific ingredients based on their needs — all while employing sustainable practices, such as permaculture and hydroponics.
“Our goal is to provide high-quality produce — often unheard of on the island, like kaffir lime, Mexican tarragon and shishito peppers — to hoteliers and restaurateurs. This allows them to compete globally in the culinary world,” Robles says. “For far too long, [Puerto Ricans] have been disconnected from agriculture, but the new generations are interested in the science behind it.”
Known for their microgreens and edible flowers, the farm’s dedication goes beyond accessibility and availability of local ingredients. On any given day at the finca, you’ll see agriculture college students working the land, including milking the goats and tending to the curry trees.
“People are more aware of our current reality after the hurricanes; it’s obvious when the supermarket shelves are empty,” Robles says.
Over the past decade, Puerto Rico has lost nearly 440,000 people — about 12% of the population — to the mainland and other countries. They’ve left largely in search of better economic prospects and stable employment. But many of the ones who stay, such as chef Ibrahim Sanz, are betting on the island’s progress.
Sanz, who ventured to the mainland to pursue his culinary dreams, felt a calling to return to the island with his family to be a part of what he calls “a future where Puerto Rico is fully sustainable.”
As the culinary director at the Hyatt Regency in Río Grande, Sanz developed a farm-to-table initiative that focuses on partnering with local suppliers, reducing food miles and supporting the local economy. When he joined the team, only 10% to 14% of the produce used in the hotel’s 13 dining outlets was local. Now they are using 85%, including produce from Frutos del Guacabo.
“As chefs, we have the responsibility to open the doors for small farmers, in part as a message to both the local and U.S. government that we are willing to mend the gap,” he tells me. “The Jones Act is a colonial law, no longer in line with the times we’re living in. Getting rid of it would allow our farmers to export some of the best produce out there.”
Sanz often goes to great lengths to find local ingredients, such as driving for hours to buy from street coconut vendors as opposed to simply ordering Thai coconuts for the property, or reviving the cherished “mercadito” experience as an opportunity for tourists and locals to savor Puerto Rican pan sobao and traditional sweets. These are all inspired by Sanz’s treasured childhood memories of being with his grandmother in Vega Baja.
Sourcing the island’s fresh produce is much more than just a culinary choice; it’s a necessity. Sanz and Massa both emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency and the economic, social and environmental benefits it brings.
“I was talking to my children recently, and they asked me why I don’t shop at Walmart, so I went to the streets of Loiza and showed them the small local vendors selling yautía, batata and plátano,” Sanz says. Though this isn’t often the case, Sanz tells me that at the tiny stall, they got twice the amount of the flavorful, locally grown produce for a very affordable price.
These seemingly small acts are revolutionary. Supporting local farmers can lower reliance on foreign imports, enhance the island’s weather resilience, strengthen the local economy and diversify healthy dietary options among the community. Embracing sustainable agriculture practices empowers Boricuas, not only to reclaim their food autonomy but also to disentangle from colonial legacy.
Although the potential repeal of the Jones Act remains uncertain, as changes would require action by the U.S. Congress, these Boricuas are not waiting around. Massa, Robles and Sanz are, both personally and professionally, creating a thriving, self-sufficient food ecosystem and culinary scene rooted in the island’s rich agricultural heritage.
“For us, sustainability is not just a buzzword; it’s a matter of survival. We must cherish and embrace what our land has to offer, not only for our well-being but also for the future generations of Puerto Ricans to come,” Massa says.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story incorrectly identified the location of Frutos del Guacabo. Language in this story has also been updated to clarify the nature of the Jones Act.