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Candy, Grapes and Vegetables

In the movie From Hell about Jack the Ripper, the killer entices the women with a promise of grapes. A treat so rare in dreary London and so sweet that even the most weary street woman would be tempted. Grapes grow in Mediterranean climates and myself having grown up in a tropical weather where fruits were abundant I didn't catch on to how rare grapes must be in England. They don't grow there. In the times of Jack the Ripper with no refrigeration they would have had to been shipped there by boat. Grapes would be a sign of great wealth, but also an incredible treat. With sugar being so expensive since it had to be extracted from sugar cane, fruits like grapes were the candy the era.

There is another movie, Grave of the Fireflies where a tin of candy plays a prominent role. The older brother uses the candy as treats for his hungry sister as they fight starvation in a World War II Japan. They ultimately loose the fight and the tin of candy now empty is in a way symbolic of the industrial process that lead to its production, the war and consequently the hunger of the children. Sugar candy with no nutritional value does little to satiate their hunger.

Last week I was in Puerto Rico, and my Aunt Gloria invited me to lunch. She made a pollo encebollado with congri and amarillos (maduros). And she also made a cucumber, lettuce and tomato salad. I went deep for the wonderful food and more or less ignored the salad. To which my Aunt reminded me that pound for pound it was the most expensive food on the table. Coming form California where a box of Strawberries is cheaper than the bread I buy, this was shocking. Mangoes for example are very expensive in California (a dollar each) while my grandmother had given me a bag of 20 that her tree had given her.

My mom nodded and said, yes that all the vegetable were imported. A head of lettuce which costs at Trader Joe's one dollar costs three in Puerto Rico. And this goes across the board on all vegetables. With a healthy diet being one composed mainly of vegetables this makes Puerto Rico a place where eating healthy is very expensive. This made me realize that the reason that vegetable were so expensive was that they unlike meats or grains could not be frozen and kept a long time in storage.

This connection is not obvious but think about this a second. My grandmother throws away mangoes that are expensive in California but gets her lettuce from... California. Why? There is a perverse industrial process that makes vegetables more expensive per pound than chicken in Puerto Rico. A process that has made Puerto Rico a place where some fruits and most vegetables are a little like the grapes in the 19th century, luxuries.

It makes me wonder how in the 21st century economics is stuck in a 19th century mentality/reality. Grapes shipped in for the rich in London. Lettuce shipped in expensively to Puerto Rico. Grapes don't grow in London, but lettuce will grow in Puerto Rico.

You look around in Puerto Rico and you see a lot of people that are what dating sites euphemistically call now "a few pounds more to love." Yes, I am comparing to California, and Los Angeles, which is one of the fittest cities in America, but it makes me wonder if it's not Sun and exercise that keeps L.A. people fit but simply cheap vegetables.


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