“Local food and grow you own,” said Thomas Zimmerman, paraphrasing the message of the event.
Zimmerman, a professor in the agriculture department at UVI, has spent years studying the crops that grow in St. Croix’s climate. At the event he presented a short lecture on growing cassava, the starchy root vegetable that was once a staple crop on the island before islanders began shipping food in from abroad.
“Years ago, before we got all this rice and other things, people were healthier. Now people eat all these processed foods and they’re not as healthy for you,” he said.
The Great Hall was almost full for his lecture, the attendance no doubt helped by Zimmerman’s promise to give everyone in the room free cassava sticks to transplant into their gardens. Zimmerman said he wasn’t surprised by the turnout, and in fact, he had more people last year for his lecture on pineapples. He said St. Croix has a large community of people interested in growing at least some of their own food, but the island could use more.
World Food Day is a worldwide event aimed at simultaneously celebrating food production and raising awareness of hunger. It was started by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and has been celebrated in 150 nations since 1981.
The UVI Cooperative Extension Service coordinated the celebration on St. Croix, offering a little bit of everything at the festival. There were professional lectures for serious gardeners, lines of food tents and produce tables for those just looking for something tasty, and plenty of activities for the kids, including a youth cooking contest, moko jumbies, and donkey rides.
Tropical Storm Raphael, which on Saturday had threatened to rain out Sunday's event, barely made an appearance. A few passing storms sent the crowds running, but it wasn’t enough to dampen the festivities.
“A lot of children who are coming here already have exposure [to animals], but some don’t,” she said.
Coles said it was important for children to interact with animals and learn to respect them. She said she often hears of children buying chicks at the agricultural fair and a few days later the birds are dead.
By giving kids a chance to hold a rabbit or feed a goat, she said she hoped they’d learn “to appreciate the animals and not think they’re disposable.”
Around the festival, everyone seemed to have an opinion about the future of agriculture on St. Croix, including a handful of senatorial candidates on the campaign trail. Many people harkened back to the days when St. Croix was the “breadbasket of the Caribbean,” and offered up agriculture as a way to replace the hole in the island’s economy left by Hovensa.
Ajamu Benoit, who runs a farm in Estate Glynn, wasn’t entirely sold on this prospect.
“We don’t have the landmass to really produce enough food to support what we’re eating at this time,” he said. “Maybe in terms of survival, we could grow enough for survival. But in terms of feeding the tastes that people have acquired over the years, I don’t think we can provide all those crops on a consistent basis.”
Still, he said he would be happy to see more people buying from local farmers such as himself. Benoit said he never sells wholesale and does most of his business face to face with individual customers. He said the secret to success was to always be friendly, to sell a quality product, and leave your customer smiling.
“Word of mouth can build you; word of mouth can kill you,” he said.
The event was free to the public, but attendees were asked to donate to the festival food drive. Throughout the day, a line of shopping carts under the main tent steadily filled with canned goods until some were almost brimming. The food will be distributed to food banks around the island.