A study by the Youth Development Institute warned last week of the devastating effects that lack of access to state and federal assistance programs could have on our children during the pandemic.
The child poverty rate in Puerto Rico is 58%. COVID-19 could plunge 43,000 more children into poverty in a four-month period if aid does not reach these families. That would imply an increase of 8 percentage points, raising the child poverty rate to 65%.
To this we must add that 83% of children in Puerto Rico live in areas of high poverty, according to the Puerto Rico Human Development Report of 2016.
Factors such as low per capita income, single parent households, and unemployment — common in Puerto Rico — place many children at risk of poverty. In addition, the study indicates that families with minors living in poverty suffer the impacts of natural phenomena with a higher proportion, including food insecurity.
The study makes some very good recommendations to improve the quality of life and the environment of minors, but none propose the establishment of urban and community gardens and the training of all family members in urban agriculture practices to increase food security.
In Puerto Rico 80% of the food we consume is imported. This is why, once an atmospheric phenomenon is announced, citizens flock to empty supermarket shelves. As we saw, after Hurricane María and now in the pandemic, many people prefer to have their pantries and cupboards full in case of an emergency.
In rural areas, where the land is abundant, some people grow part of their food. In urban areas people plant in their yards. However, not all families have access to a patio or a plot of their own. In Puerto Rico, we have failed enormously to promote urban or community gardens as a tool for sustainability and food security.
The definition of poverty includes lack of access to nutritious food in an easy way. Community urban gardens are a solution to the problem while fostering social interaction, emotional well-being, lessons in science, nutrition and agriculture.
With the creation of these spaces — of which there are less than 20 in Puerto Rico according to a study commissioned to Estudios Técnicos by Ana G. Méndez s School of Environmental Affairs in 2018 — the protection of the environment and the reuse or rescue of vacant land and properties are promoted.
A 2015 study by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics titled “Food Security in Puerto Rico” recommended the development of public policies that protect the constitutional right of Puerto Ricans to their food and the development of interventions aimed at offering education in topics that include home, community and urban gardening.
With the start of the new hurricane season and in the midst of a pandemic and a potential drought in the horizon, it is urgent that more Puerto Ricans have access to food quickly. Urban and/or community gardens are the easiest way to ensure a constant supply of food with high nutritional value.
We need to plant, grow and secure our food. We can offer invaluable sustainability lessons to our children and foster self-management models and community participation as we close the gap to eradicate food insecurity and child poverty in Puerto Rico.