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By michelle dimuzio, communications coordinator
Spanish-language interpretation provided by Jackie Parral

To bring our year to a close, Slow Food USA wants to highlight some Slow Food Sparks that have emerged for members of our national community. What are some of those moments that reinvigorated or re-inspired members of our network to fight for good, clean and fair food for all? These sparks are fueled by our donors and members, whose generosity helps our movement thrive. Please make a donation or become a member today.

In 2021, Slow Food USA launched the National Resilience Fund in response to the gaps in our foodways, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund gave direct financial support to businesses and workers fueling community-based approaches to food creation and distribution through Slow Food chapters and working groups. The funds were distributed throughout three rounds: round one focused on initiatives such as seed projects, food distribution, and children’s programs; round two focused on Black-led food initiatives; and round three focused on the hospitality industry. Overall, the fund provided $52,000 to 38 projects throughout the United States and territories. 

We caught up with Marisel Robles, who leads two organizations that received funds in round two: Centro de Apoyo Mutuo La Olla Común and Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico. La Olla Común is working to transform a deteriorating 3-story building into a Community Mutual Aid Center in Río Piedras, with visions for a community kitchen, social dining room, and health services. Comedores Sociales works directly with community members in the battle against hunger, which was only made worse during the pandemic. Their main initiative, The Solidarity Food Bag, involved buying locally grown food, assembling bags for families, and creating food storage spaces for impending climate and political crises that have been reoccurring in Puerto Rico. They are also working on education for gardening and food self-sufficiency.

“The funds were used to make a co-op as well as a food pantry and kitchen,” Marisel shared. “People can come and participate and make food as well as being able to purchase food, kind of like a supermarket. We work with farmers and producers directly which makes the food more accessible and more affordable.” 

Marisel and other community members have been working on these projects since last October. While it has been a lot of trial and error, the community members have been integral to the process. “The community gave ideas of how to start the project while they tried out different strategies,” Marisel explained. “They used the money to buy directly from the farmers, while also trying to build more of a business. We are working on hiring legal departments to help with statistics and data so we can understand the impact and where to go from here.”

The market they have built provides both perishable and non-perishable items, and includes local favorites such as bananas, beans, pineapples, root vegetables and yucca. 

“My goal is to have a place where people are able to come and purchase sustainable and affordable food,” Marisel emphasized. “The price of food in Puerto Rico is so high that people are not able to purchase healthy food. I want to provide these resources for my community and other surrounding villages.” 

Eighty percent of the food in Puerto Rico is currently imported. Marisel and her generation are trying to change that. “We are trying to give people the knowledge of how to produce their own food,” Marisel stated. “The current government is investing the money more towards tourism and not invested in seeing Puerto Rico grow on its own. We are hoping with these initiatives, people learn how to grow food sustainability and produce more for themselves.”

When Hurricane Maria hit, it was devastating for the country, and intensified the food security issues Puerto Rico was already experiencing. “A lot of people were left to fend for themselves, and they weren’t given a lot of assistance,” Marisel explained. “Eventually, organizations started coming and providing more assistance and bringing food. Food pantries started to open up and I realized my purpose. I felt like I needed to do something important and work for my country, and this work gave me a reason to stay.” 

There are still larger organizations in Puerto Rico working towards fighting hunger; however, most of the funding does not go directly to the communities. Marisel and her community members are recruiting friends and neighbors to work in smaller organizations like the ones she is involved with, so they understand how to eat healthier and have the option to grow their own food instead of relying on the government or imported food. The support from the National Resilience Fund went directly to the community in support of food security initiatives. Mairsel emphasized the importance of receiving this money for on-the-ground work. 

Although the situation in Puerto Rico is dire, there is still a lot of joy. Marisel has found joy recently in experimenting with local foods. “In Puerto Rico we make a lot of fruitas, or fried food. I have been trying to widen my horizons and eat healthier using the local vegetables and root vegetables. Lentils grow in Puerto Rico so we have been making veggie burgers and falafel.”

While Marisel knows this is a long process, she is optimistic for the future. “We are working really hard. We know you have to build relationships and be patient, and that’s what we’re working on now. It’s been a long process but we are giving people confidence and letting them know little by little, we are working towards a bigger goal.”

The National Resilience Fund is an investment in the long-term biocultural diversity of our foodways. By providing hyper-local funds to communities in need of support now, we were able to help one another navigate the current crises, while also building resilient economics and community for the future. These funds would not be possible without members like you. Thank you for your support and we look forward to continue supporting community initiatives into the new year.