Food Desert Islands

When friends introduced us to the sunny pleasures of the Caribbean island vacation as a way of staving off the worst of the winter blues, I didn't originally see these trips moving up the food chain from "want" to "need." But snorkeling in blue water and spending a week in flipflops at the end of Michigan February makes the long tail end of winter seem survivable.  The great beaches, relaxed atmosphere, and homemade food have kept us coming back to the same eco-resort every year for "luxury" camping - the kind with flush toilets and showers (solar heated, usually cold showers). The fact that they recycle their bottles to provide material for a professional glass-blowing studio helps a bit too. 


Since learning to sail, we've expanded the list of islands that we've been able to visit to include some of the British Virgin Islands (BVIs).   Because I've begun paying more attention to what we eat and where it comes from, I've tried for several years, mostly unsuccessfully, to find out where  you can get food, any food, that comes from the Virgin Islands or is a traditional staple of the island diet.  


With a population of only a few thousand until the 1900s (consisting mainly of slaves before 1848), the British and US Virgin Islands were historically self-sufficient in terms of feeding themselves, although they received supplies (sailed in, rather than flown in) from far away mainlands. In addition to working the sugar plantations, slaves were expected to grow and prepare their own food - which I gather consisted mainly of sweet potatoes, corn, and a few chickens, pigs and goats. Remnant populations of chickens, goats, wild boar, cattle and the occasional wild donkey still roam at will.  


In spite of a climate dry enough for cactus and a lack of ground water requiring all drinking water to come from cisterns, until the mid-1900s people grew enough of their own food and livestock to survive.  With a population in the USVI now well over 100,000, the CIA World Fact Book says:


"Tourism is the primary economic activity, accounting for 80% of GDP and employment. The islands hosted 2.6 million visitors in 2005. The manufacturing sector consists of petroleum refining, textiles, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and watch assembly. One of the world's largest petroleum refineries is at Saint Croix. The agricultural sector is small, with most food being imported." 


From what I could gather, most of that imported food is flown in from Florida. When I finally found a local grocery store on the second floor above a car parts shop, I was a little surprised to see the freezer cases packed with Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry's and the aisles filled with every imaginable box and package; the food was exactly what I would have expected to find at a Kroger here in my own town.  The produce section even had organic apples and watermelon, corn, strawberries and blueberries in February. Just like home.


As far as I can gather, only Tortola's Road Town has a farmer's market - on Saturdays from 4am to 7am.  When we got there last year just before 7, there were only a few vendors selling things like hot peppers, breadfruit, and cucumbers, and some pumpkin pudding and the thick-crusted coconut pies that they make there. Not many customers either. And finding traditional staples of the island diet (spinach-like callaloo or the polenta-with-okra dish called fungi) has also left me disappointed.  This year I thought I would try looking for anyone growing food. And we made a special effort to visit the one restaurant I had heard of that does serve traditional foods, Miss Lucy's on St. John, where I finally got to try both callaloo and fungi.  


Another popular local restaurant on St. John is the Donkey Diner. I love their motto: Kick-Ass Food. They have great breakfasts ands make everything from scratch, including their own bagels and pizza dough. I asked the owner if there's anyone growing food on the island or any farms. He said "Oh, here and there, a couple of people grow stuff. One lady about a mile from here grows greens. There used to be a guy growing tomatoes." Not quite what I was hoping for. 


My best food finds of the trip were on the island of Anegada in the BVIs. Anegada, the farthest flung and northernmost of the BVIs, is the only one of the islands that is not volcanic in origin. It's a coral atoll, surrounded on all sides by ship-destroying reefs and about 28' at its highest point, where you can stand and shoot an arrow straight across the ocean to France.  


In an unlikely looking building that serves as a grocery, liquor store and hardware, I found a box with some not quite ripe but homegrown tomatoes and an assortment various sized green bananas. Yippee!  Luckier still, when I asked the woman running a gift shop and eating some delicious-smelling food where she had gotten her eggplant, she told me that her mom has a garden and sells some of her extra tomatoes and sweet peppers. "Just ask anyone how to get to Henny's." 


Out in the back of a nondescript little stucco'd house I was thrilled to see a big beautiful garden with a riot of ripe tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other things I didn't recognize. Callaloo that had gone to seed, grown over my head, and strange fruits I've never tasted. Henny has a small herd of 10 goats - she's planning to start making goat cheese this year she says. And she has chickens. She says she gardens without chemicals - the goats and chickens help her out with their fertilizer.  She also has a little shop in front of her house where I bought some of the dark and savory sea grape jam she had made earlier in the year.  And when I ate a sun-warmed and salt-air summer tomato on the taxi ride back I felt a little like Persephone cheating Hades.  How often do you get to eat a summer tomato straight off the vine in February? Only if you live in New Zealand. 


To encourage more people to grow food, there is a celebration in the BVIs the first week of February every year called Farmer's Week with prizes and recognition from island leaders. People know they need to grow more of their own food - a food desert island is not a sustainable future.  A quote from BVI farmer Moviene Fahie from the link above:


"Farmers need more water, more trained technical support and a commitment from the Government to grow the industry of agriculture, she said. “Government has got to get serious. What we do is not a joke,” Fahie said. “A country without food is a dead country. And that’s what we could be — a dead country.”


I'd like to learn more about St. Croix's Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute.  They say:


"VISFI promotes the development of agroecology: an innovative field of agriculture that enjoins productivity with resource conservation, using ecological and indiginous management models to create sustainable life systems. We believe local, organic agriculture and a practical educational experience are the first steps toward building vital communities and achieving long term sustainability within a healthy environment. These beliefs led to the establishment of our Four Pillars: Education, Sustainability, Community, and Environment. We use these focal points to guide decisions that will promote our farm’s vision."


It's next on the list of places I need to visit when Demeter's grief and the dark days of winter conspire. 



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