Field Study Trip Explores the Paradox That is Cuba

Es Cuba!”

That explains, in a nutshell, the contradiction that is Cuba, said Jessica Sanford, MS  ‘11,  who co-led an AUNE field study trip to the island in January.Field Study Trip Explores the Paradox that is Cuba

“The funny thing about Cuba is that you go there to learn more, but you come away knowing less,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but if you talk to anyone who has been there I think they will agree that Cuba is a place of dualism and contradictions.  They have a term in Cuba to explain this: ‘Es Cuba!’ Simply put this means ‘It’s Cuba’ or that there’s no explanation or answer— that’s just the way it is.”

Why They Went
Twenty students went on the trip. It was part of an Environmental Studies course called Food System of Cuba: Implications for Environment, Livelihood and Food Security that investigated how Cuba’s food system is faring, after the fall of Soviet Russia left Cubans with few modern agricultural inputs.  “Cuba provides us with a unique opportunity to learn how to farm with minimal inputs, important in the face of climate change and with staggering fuel costs,” Jessica said.

What They Discovered
In the cities, the AUNE group visited organiponicos, or city gardens planted in raised beds, and  community base garden projects, found in front yards, backyards, rooftops, and balconies, much like community gardens.  “Many were truly little oases within rundown areas,” Jessica said.  Outside the city the group visited large-scale private and state-owned farms. At a tobacco farm, they watched workers roll Cuban cigars by hand.

Retail stores in Cuba are much different from the United States. Most people purchase their fresh foods and meats at farmers’ markets because food stores are limited and expensive. The group also visited the Ration Market, where Cubans exchange ration cards for staples such as rice, beans, and milk.  Designed to make sure all Cubans had enough food, the ration system today provides a family only half as much as it needs.

The service-learning project was a highlight of the trip for many students, who spent a day weeding and clearing brush on a two-acre community farm. The Cubans made lunch and talked about the farm’s social, environmental, and economical benefits for the community.

“I think that students took away that the food system in Cuba has great components and bad components and that it is not the utopia that it is portrayed as,” Jessica said.  “I think they left with great appreciation for the ingenuity of the farmers.  But the greatest takeaway point for students was probably the sentiment of the Cuban people—their compassion, their sense of pride in place, their resiliency, and their kindheartedness.”

How the Idea Began
The seed of the trip started on a field study trip to Mexico in 2011, when Jessica and two classmates, Mike Gouzward and John Lippman, talked about an alumni trip, an idea that lingered. “As soon as I graduated, I felt that I wanted to do something, create something, to put all of what  I had just learned at Antioch into action,” said  Jessica who now works as the marketing and outreach coordinator for the Intervale Food Hub in Burlington, Vermont, as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Vermont (UVM),  and program specialist within UVM’s Residential Learning Communities.

She worked with Gouzward and Lippman, with Libby McCann, director of the Environmental Education concentration, and Tom Wessels, faculty emeritus, to put together a proposal for the trip.

“This field study course is just the sort of thing that AUNE does extremely well – engaging students in timely and important issues such as food security and access, cultural understanding, and community building,” said McCann, who also led the trip. “The students came back from Cuba with a fresh awareness and enthusiasm about these issues and, at the same time, they left a lot of good will behind in Cuba.”