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Jamaica responds to COVID-19 by ramping up healthy food consumption

Jamaica responds to COVID-19 by ramping up healthy food consumption

“With every crisis comes challenges and opportunities,” says Floyd Green, State Minister in Jamaica’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, of the devastating COVID-19 decline in Jamaica’s tourism sector, which has created supply and demand imbalances and a glut of agricultural produce on the local market.

“Never has there been a better time to address Jamaican consumption patterns, to change the big picture,” says the Minister, of government’s new Say Yes To Fresh ‘buy local’ campaign that has been enlisting the private sector to absorb the excess produce and re-educating consumers on the importance of making local purchasing and consumption decisions when it comes to food.

A January Tourism Demand Study conducted by Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism’s Tourism Linkages Council estimated that the tourism sector had a demand of just under $3 million for agricultural products. A significant market void has been created by the loss of this demand, resulting in a surplus of thousands of tons of produce.

Among the food items with no home are cantaloupes, honey dew, watermelons, pineapples and tomatoes (cocktail and salad) as well as high quality yams, squash, eggplant and bananas, originally intended for the hospitality and tourism industry.

Prior to COVID-19, farms such as The Treasure Beach Hydroponic Farmers group in St. Elizabeth had invested just under $75 thousand on their tomato harvest, which included specialty cocktail tomatoes, of which 95 per cent was destined for local hotels.

“We are expecting a harvest of 20,000 pounds of cantaloupes over the next few months,” says Minister Green. “We have to protect that investment.”

Some estimates project that Jamaican farmers will experience an annual hit of $1.68 million, given the loss of markets (tourism, attractions as well as the downturn in local restaurants) but according to the estimates reported in the Tourism Demand Study, these figures could be significantly higher.

As part of its Say Yes To Fresh Campaign, The Ministry of Agriculture has been directly purchasing surplus from farmers and reselling and redistributing it. The private sector has played a major role in assisting with the storage of the excess produce. The short shelf life of agricultural supply has made rapid redistribution mandatory. In many cases, the ministry has allocated produce to feeding programs, children’s homes and prisons.

In a country where consumption patterns have been largely dictated by an outward looking, import driven mindset, public education and culture change have been critical. Consumers have also been introduced to food items such as eggplants and squash that were previously intended for the tourism sector and have not traditionally been a part of the typical Jamaican diet. Consumers are actively being rallied via social media to use the hashtags #supportourfarmers and #buywithpurpose in support of the movement.

Within the private sector, entrepreneurs and agro-processors have been innovating, developing new value-added products and expanding existing product lines.

“The primary market has shut down, so we need to move on to the secondary market, which includes agri-processors and retail,” explains Minister Green of the public-private partnership.

This initiative is being facilitated by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) through ALEX (Agri-Linkage Exchange), an online produce marketplace that previously served as the primary facilitator between farmers and the tourism market.

Staffed by agri-brokers, the platform has been tracking and marketing excess produce to agri-processors, traders, supermarkets and other retailers, and has linked over 400 Jamaican farmers to viable markets.

Agri-processor, Grace Kennedy, has been absorbing produce, such as excess scallions and peppers, which it is using in its ‘scallion mash’ and ‘pepper mash’.

Trade Winds Citrus Limited, which manufactures the Tru-Juice brand of juices, is absorbing excess fruits and vegetables in the manufacture of new products. In early April, the agri-processor purchased 5,000 pounds of tomatoes from farmers in St. Elizabeth for the production of a new line of beverages, which includes tomato-pineapple juice. The absorption of pineapples has been critical, having recorded an excess of 2.4 million pounds during the month of April.

The Agro-Investment of Corporation of Jamaica has been organising drive-thru farmers markets, selling 20 and 25 pound bags filled to the brim with local produce such as Irish potatoes, cantaloupes, tomatoes, melons, scallions and zucchinis that would not typically make their way into a Jamaican shopping basket, for between $7 and $11.

Trade opportunities, particularly within the CARICOM Caribbean region are also being explored.

Jamaica Promotions Corporation or JAMPRO, a government agency that promotes local business opportunities in export has recognised the long-term opportunity of the Say Yes To Fresh campaign, from the perspective of import substitution, the development of new supply chains as well as the permanent expansion of Jamaica’s agriculture sector, which would also enable improved access to financing and agricultural technology.

“JAMPRO is taking a proactive approach in establish these new supply chains in Jamaica. Globally, there has always been a demand for Jamaican produce, both from the Jamaican Diaspora and among general consumers. This anticipated expansion to new supply chains and increased access to financing will revolutionise the agriculture industry and will be a key driver toward Jamaica’s recovery post COVID-19,” says JAMPRO President, Diane Edwards.

“In every adversity there are seeds of greater benefit. Our mission is to find them and sow them,” says Audley Shaw, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries.

“Our Say Yes to Fresh is one such seed As a region we can seize victory from the jaws of defeat by buying and eating locally produced foods, goods and services.”

By: Daphne Ewing-Chow

Source: Forbes Magazine