By Amy Davila Sanchez
Tara’s mother, pursuing her life dream to become an organic farmer, acquired a farm after years of city dwelling. On Tara’s frequent visits to the farm in the mountain town of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, she started learning about sustainable agriculture. More importantly, she changed her eating habits. Consuming only produce from the farm, she saw the benefits of eating local and organic. Tara had never experienced food that tasted so good. The concept for El Departamento de la Comida was born from Tara’s desire to share this revelation with the world.
Puerto Rico imports 94 percent of its food from the mainland US. To reverse this trend, Tara, working with her partner, Olga Casellas, founded El Departamento de la Comida in 2010. Located in Santurce, Puerto Rico, it became the first organic food hub in the island. During its founding year, the company focused primarily on launching the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes for the island. Tara and her team soon learned that there was a broader desire among CSA consumers for education and interaction with the team from Departamento de la Comida.
Tara and Olga then expanded operations to include a storefront in the working class neighborhood of Tras Talleres. Here they retail organic produce, stage the CSA boxes and serve as education ambassadors of the sustainable food movement and healthy lifestyles. The storefront enabled Tara and her team to capture a new insights through customer engagement. Consumers wanted El Departamento de la Comida to offer prepared foods. So with an investment of $80 they bought a used stove and expanded into offering foodservice to their clientele.
El Departamento de la Comida is still the only organic food hub on the island. Cornering the market, Tara and Olga have expanded into different aspects of the food supply chain. They:
- Support farmers in the marketing and distribution of organic goods
- Support the Puerto Rico foodservice industry by providing a steady stream of high quality produce
- Support consumers through CSA distribution, retail of organic produce and local artisan products
- Serve organic prepared meals
Perhaps the biggest impact of el Departamento de la Comida has been the positive influence of the organization on the working class community of Tras Talleres. Tara is turning her operation into an economic anchor for the community, leveraging local resources to develop the business. The official truck mechanic of the organization is the mechanic down the street. The dining ware for the prepared food service is provided by their neighbor, Puerto Rico Compostables. Leftover food scraps are donated to another neighbor who raises ducks and geese. A neighbor across the street provides them with recipes and cooking tips they use in the kitchen. The store even spawned the first community urban farm, an initiative of one of the Tras Talleres neighbors who had started frequenting the space and inquiring about organic produce.
It is too soon to tell the impact that El Departamento de la Comida will have on the Puerto Rican society. New, small organic farm operations have emerged in the last couple of years. Trends like urban farming, farm to table eating, and the growing awareness of the connection between nutrition and health are driving interest in organic products and local eating habits.
Tara recognizes that education is key in social change. For this reason, she is re-inventing El Departmento de la Comida with a focus on education, offering workshops on healthy lifestyles as well as urban farming. She also hopes to take her message to local schools, believing that the future generations can drive the change and bring to life the vision that El Departamento de la Comida holds for Puerto Rico.
New York lost a valuable resource when Tara returned home, but it is truly Puerto Rico’s gain.