With an average monthly income of less than $200, it was nearly impossible for Rubila Candela to feed her family healthy food. She relied on frying and lots of butter and cheese to flavor the stale produce she bought from the corner store. This unhealthy diet was contributing to Rubila’s increasing body weight, high blood pressure, and chronic fatigue, which made it difficult for her to work and care for her children. All this changed soon after Rubila helped form Ecuador’s first Canasta Comunitaria (a community food-buying club) with families from her neighborhood.
Rubila and the other Canasta families began pooling their money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in bulk from wholesale markets, and then dividing the produce among themselves. The result was incredible: a 30% – 50% savings on their food bills! As savings increased, members begin to wonder where their food was coming from, and who was profiting from their spending. They obtained financial support from an Ecuadorian community organization for a farm visit, where Canasta members learned about the role small-scale farmers play in preserving native plant species, land conservation, and healthy food. This visit started a process that has resulted in local Canasta groups like Rubila’s developing direct relationships with small-scale farmers in the countryside surrounding the cities where they live.
EkoRural, a key Groundswell partner in Ecuador, has supported the Canastas Comunitarias movement for many years, sponsoring farm visits and helping the Canastas leaders establish positive relationships with institutions at the regional and even national levels, which has led to the creation of more and more local markets across the country. EkoRural’s support for the Canastas movement dovetails closely with its increasing role in elevating the voice of community-based organizations in national debates on food sovereignty.
Rubila recalls her first Canasta purchase: “For the first time in our lives, our refrigerator was like a millionaire’s, filled to the brim! It gave us such pleasure to open the fridge and see more than frozen water. Before, if a rat entered my fridge, it would have starved to death.”
The Canasta’s bounty of fresh produce and heirloom varieties has forced Rubila to be an innovative cook and change her eating habits. Her health quickly improved. In addition, the Canastas gave Rubila’s and her neighbors a new appreciation for the farmers who grow their food. Rubila’s food awareness came full circle – from the farm to her table – on the visit to the farms that supply her Canasta: “I see these farm families’ sacrifice in every potato and carrot I eat. I see the women working hard to feed their families and produce our food, while we sit and wait in front of the T.V. Now, the food I eat has meaning.”
According to the latest census, Ecuadorian consumers spend more than $5 billion a year on food. That is 10 times the amount of international development cooperation invested in the country. Thanks to people like Rubila the Canastas Comunitarias movement is transforming Ecuador’s food system into a positive force that is dramatically improving the health of thousands of marginalized people as well as much of the country’s ailing landscape. The Canastas alternative markets are stretching family budgets while providing access to quality foods and paying small-scale farmers a fair price – at least 80% of food production in Ecuador is in the hands of small-scale growers. Farmers earn more, families pay less, and solidarity is strengthened. Everybody wins.