Christopher Serju, Contributor
I was particularly heartened when, during a recent coffee break while on assignment at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' Hope Gardens office, we were served snack packs which comprised a slice of fresh papaya, melon, pineapple, half an orange and a ripe banana.
I interpreted this as a long-overdue step in the right direction by the agriculture ministry in leading the charge to reduce Jamaica's burgeoning food-import bill, which for 2011 stood at US$930 million.
Since taking office, Roger Clarke has been urging Jamaicans to support the 'Grow What We Eat, Eat What We Grow' campaign as a practical means of reducing this multimillion-dollar bill, while providing support for local farmers.
However, my joy was short-lived and replaced by confusion when the lunch menu was circulated. Apart from the 'Escabeche fish' (I kid you not), I was struck by the absence of any ground provisions or other local starches on the 'food' component of the choices on offer. It was either rice and peas or plain rice, and as if in sync with my thoughts, someone was brave enough to write in 'one slice of yam with vegetables' beside his/her name.
Imagine my further consternation two days later at a closing-out ceremony in northern Clarendon for farmers who had received financial help from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Clarendon aspect of the project centred on the rehabilitation of some nine farm roads and resuscitation of banana, plantain, coffee, sugar cane and other crops.
I was flabbergasted to find that although pumpkins, bananas and plantains were on display in what is a strong yam area, with the Christiana Potato Growers Cooperative Association having a display booth, not one of these items was on the menu. Again, it was rice and peas - imported rice and red peas! And to think Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke is mystified as to why our food-import bill had jumped by all of US$100 million over the previous year.
In bringing greetings, USAID mission director Denise Herbol thanked the hosts for the excellent coffee, the beans from which it was brewed in all likelihood cultivated on the Baron Hall Estate where she was standing.
GRAND OPPORTUNITY MISSED
I think the ministry missed a grand opportunity to give members of the diplomatic corps, including US chargé d'affaires, Dr Raymond Brown, a taste of real Jamaican food, given the context of the occasion. After all, it was part of the US$3.2-million grant from USAID which had led to rehabilitation of the sectors devastated by Tropical Storm Gustav in 2008.
The agriculture ministry must lead the charge by putting on the menu of all its offices across the island, at least one day of the week, Jamaican produce: yam, sweet potato, plantain, banana, dasheen, cocoa, pumpkin, breadfruit - a day when neither rice and peas nor plain rice is an option.
Minister Clarke is well aware of the need for such strong action to correct the 'foreign-minded' bias for which we are paying so dearly. At a function in St Thomas, he recounted how, years ago, the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) called him to an emergency meeting with yam farmers who were unable to get their provisions sold. Minister Clarke recounted his astonishment that when lunch was served, not only was there not one slice of yam, but rice and peas was served with the main course.
To fully understand how deep-rooted this self-destructive behaviour runs, one need only think about the behaviour of our small farmers heading to their fields each day to reap yam, banana or cocoa. To complement the meat kind they plan to cook in the field, they usually stop at a shop to purchase flour or rice (read: imported food).
NOT INCLUDED IN MENUS
Breadfruit is now in season, but what are the chances that you are likely to see the diversity of our tasty crops reflected in these seasonal changes on the menus of the government ministries in any significant way? After all, a pound of rice goes much further and is easier to share than two pounds of yam or a dozen bananas. In fact, I am still waiting to see naseberry, guinep or jackfruit on offer at any of the cocktail parties I attend.
I was delighted by a recent incident involving Jésus Baguena, head of the European Union delegation to Jamaica. At a recent function in Somerset, St Thomas, an enterprising vendor introduced him to coconut drops, and it was a pleasure to see his face light up at the taste.
"Very nice, very nice," he responded in that distinct accent when I asked about his first taste of coconut, beyond the raw 'jelly'.
In-between all the diplomatic jawing, outside of Blue Mountain Coffee, Jamaican politicians must begin to introduce their guests to the wide range of local fruits and foods. Some of those gift packages must now be replaced by fruit baskets if we are to begin eating away at that spiralling food-import bill.
Christopher Serju is a freelance journalist who mainly covers the agriculture sector and rural affairs. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com