The “Canastas Comunitarias:” Building an urban-rural platform for food security and healthy food systems
Story and Photos by Emma Kirwan (Fulbright Scholar and World Neighbors intern)
In Ecuador, the nutritional and environmental benefits of a healthy food system are becoming luxuries beyond the reach of the urban and rural poor. The modern market has come between the once linked urban consumer and the rural producer. The connection between producer and consumer is now dependent on intermediaries. They control distribution and prices while charging a grossly high commission for their services. These transactions affect both the grower and the consumer, who continue to suffer unfair prices, poor product quality and harmful consequences for the environment.
Since 1987, a movement known as the Canastas Comunitarias has steadily grown and sought to counter the harmful consequences of modern markets, where poor consumers struggle to obtain healthy food at fair and affordable prices that respect the producer. The canastas comunitarias are urban consumer groups formed by neighborhood ties or linked through churches, clubs or universities.
World Neighbors program participants and the canasta groups have a direct benefit from each other. The World Neighbors participants are growing healthy, organic foods, which are sold to the canasta groups for a fair price and the farmers in turn receive a fair wage.
The objective is that affordable, healthy food is achieved through a basic process: participants pool funds together to make bulk purchases in the public marketplace, which are then divided among the families in the group and results in substantial savings.
“Canasta” means basket and represents the basic food share that all citizens should have the right to access. In Ecuador, a country where national and local governments consistently fail to provide food security and income generating opportunities, the Canastas Comunitarias strive to make healthy food affordable for marginalized people in urban and rural settings through direct relationships between consumers and agro-ecological producers.
How do consumers benefit?
The canasta comunitaria provides poor urban families with more nutritious options. The basket includes a range of fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes that has become increasingly varied over time. As a result, consumers introduce new products into their home and are encouraged to learn new recipes through workshops and trials. Consequently, consumers have the power to recover culinary traditions and local plant varieties that are being lost.
The Canasta Comunitaria Utopía
The Canasta Comunitaria Utopía is made up of about 80 families from the city of Riobamba in Central Ecuador. To enter the group, families must pay a $1.00 inscription fee. The process is organized every two weeks, and obtains products from the local markets and from six farming families.
Thursday: Every other Thursday, participants pay $7.50 for their basket and drop off a large sack or basket to be filled with their products.
Friday: A rotating team studies prices in the local markets to work out the budget and finalize the shopping list for Saturday’s purchases.
Saturday: A selected group of purchasers, between 25 to 30 family representatives, carry out the work under the guidance of one of six rotating leaders.
In 1987, a church group of 25 families founded the first canasta comunitaria in Riobamba. However, in 1999, the group disbanded, coinciding with a severe economic crisis and dramatic inflation. The canasta model was urgently reinstated in response to aggravated poverty and limited access to healthy food. In 2000, seven families in Riobamba formed the Canasta Comunitaria Utopía and the movement has steadily gained momentum. Word of their experience spread and stirred interest on a national scale. The Quito-based canasta demonstrates the movement’s dramatic growth: through word of mouth and a radio program, the canasta increased from 25 families in 2002 to 640 families in 2005. A national network of canastas was formalized in April of 2008.
The quality of the food reflects the quality of the community
As the canastas comunitarias increasingly save on their food purchases, consumers are beginning to wonder where their food comes from.
Questions such as:
“What is the point of saving if we are eating food produced with chemicals?”
“Where are we currently spending our dollars and who should be receiving our money?”
Over time, the groups have sought more direct relationships with small-scale growers, such as those World Neighbors are helping, who are interested in “healthier” production. Through farm visits, group members learn about the realities of agro-ecological farming and they gradually accept that natural products differ from the commercial varieties in size and appearance. Although natural products are often smaller or scarred by insects they are usually richer in flavor.
When Canasta Comunitaria Utopía received its first order of rainbow chard from a local farmer, consumers were thrilled by its radical colors. Farmers were equally excited by this newfound interest.
Goratire Roberto, a participating farmer said, “At 60 years old, this is the first time I have delivered my product into the hands of the person who will eat it, the first time that I have looked into their eyes, that I have met them in person.”
The direct relationship between the canastas comunitarias and the producers ensures that farmers receive fair prices. Frequently, producers and consumers meet to agree upon prices and farmers benefit from a rare degree of stability.
Plans for the future
As the canastas comunitarias gain momentum, diverse projects have been proposed for building local economies around environmentally-friendly production. They have also become active in nationwide campaigns to promote affordable and healthy food systems. A unique opportunity for including the urban and rural poor in an otherwise exclusive market has been created by the canastas comunitarias and over time their effort has become articulated as part of an international “food sovereignty” movement.
World Neighbors receives two grants to provide short-term relief for Haiti
World Neighbors has received two emergency relief grants for Haiti– a $10,000 grant from American Jewish World Service and a $20,000 grant from Lutheran World Relief – in response to the widespread destruction caused by hurricanes/tropical storms Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, which occurred successively during a three-week period in August and September. The repeated storms arrived in Haiti at a time when vulnerable populations’ exposure to food insecurity was already particularly high due to surging food and fuel prices.
Funds from American Jewish World Service will be used to support the six most affected World Neighbors program areas in Haiti – Maissade, La Victoire, St. Michel, Ivwa, Bayonè and Moulin – by enabling access and providing short-term humanitarian relief to save lives and set the stage for longer-term recovery assistance once the crisis ends. Support from Lutheran World Relief will also focus upon providing short-term humanitarian relief to especially vulnerable individuals in World Neighbors affected program areas in Haiti’s Ouest and Artibonite departments, as well as facilitate the stabilization of key roads to allow the transportation of aid to these areas.