Plant-Based Puerto Rico: A "World Food Day" Celebration & Conversation

ExplorEquity founders Catarina Rivera and Remi Oguntoye, with Chef Gabriela Ramos

Last week, we partnered with Impact Travel Alliance to host an event celebrating World Food Day in New York City at the Coco-Mat store in SoHo. ExplorEquity co-founder Catarina Rivera joined chef Gabriela Ramos in conversation about all things sustainability, food, Puerto Rico, entrepreneurship, and more.

To kick off the evening, the animated crowd of over 40 attendees connected over a menu of plant-based Puerto Rican appetizers including alcapurrias, arroz con gandules, and a chia coconut tembleque dessert cooked by Chef Gabriela Ramos. Settled with full plates, the audience gathered around Catarina and Gabriela as they began discussing their connections to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican cuisine. As Gabriela shared, “Through cooking I find my way’s a way to connect back to your roots, where your family is.”

After learning about the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the Taínos, Gabriela began to gravitate toward eating food from the land and sea. “People think Puerto Rican food is heavy -- beans, rice, and meat -- with meat as a centerpiece, but it’s not. The Taínos ate as a community and sustainably hunted for food.” She further explained how diets were mostly plant-based with root vegetables, cashews and peanuts, as well as eating conch and clams from the ocean.

Chef Gabriela also offered some advice on getting started with a plant-based approach to food. “I think people are afraid of going vegan or cooking this kind of food - it's actually easier than we all think. It's just getting comfortable with the ingredients and getting in the kitchen.”

For those skeptical about forgoing meat - “It's just all about flavor. Sometimes you eat at these vegan restaurants and the portion is small and it's bland.” It’s also about the texture. ”I make croquettes with plátano and beans inside - a wonderful texture. I use a lot of garlic, and onions, and acid. It's the way you cook the food too - roasting is really nice right now because it's fall. You get a nice texture.”

Catarina spoke about the strong plant-based movement in Puerto Rico right now, with participation from farmers, bloggers, activists, chefs, and more. She mentioned the following organizations and people doing excellent work in this area: El Josco Bravo agroecological farm, Casa Vegana de la Comunidad, Cooperativa Organica Madre Tierra, and @borivegan, and @mindulgrub on Instagram.

As the conversation continued, the theme of sustainable tourism was highlighted. Impact Travel Alliance is a nonprofit aimed at improving the world through travel and educates travelers about the importance of sustainability. They define sustainable tourism as travel that has a positive impact on a destination’s environment, economy, and culture. ExplorEquity is engaged in sustainable tourism as part of its model, and Catarina spoke about how we only partnered with locally-owned businesses and organizations for our trip exploring food systems in Puerto Rico post-Maria. We wanted to ensure that our dollars actually benefited the local economy. She shared that a challenge we found was that sometimes these wonderful locally-owned entities didn’t have the best environmental sustainability practices so it’s going to take time and effort to achieve full sustainability in all its dimensions.

On entrepreneurship, Catarina and Chef Gabriela both offered their perspectives as Latina entrepreneurs. Both discussed their family’s responses to their entrepreneurial efforts and commented on the cultural values that are placed on stability and traditional careers. Catarina offered some wise advice about how to make boss moves and launch a business. “Don’t stay in the idea space too long. Even if it's something small, just start. Fail fast, send out an email, send out a survey.”

Both Catarina and Gabriela discussed tips on how to maintain productivity through the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial journey, like the benefits of finding accountability mates, coworking spaces, or assistants through services like GenM, and how social media can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s important to take a step back to be creative, figure out what is for you, and follow that instinct.

On deciding to launch ExplorEquity and its first trip to Puerto Rico, Catarina talked about gut feeling and passion. “I feel it in my soul that this is the right approach, this is the right idea.” with Gabriela adding on - “I just try to figure out what my purpose is, just do it for me.”

What resonated for you about this conversation? What are your thoughts on plant-based eating and its connection to Puerto Rico or other Latino cultures? What kind of event would you like to see in the future? Comment to share your perspectives and join the conversation.

World Food Day is celebrated annually on October 16th to commemorate the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and each year’s theme focuses on an aspect of food and ending hunger. The 2019 theme called for #ZeroHunger while also discussing the need to improve our diets, due to the global transition we have made from “seasonal, mainly plant-based and fibre-rich dishes to diets that are high in refined starches, sugar, fats, salt, processed foods, meat and other animal-source products.”