Michelle Obama inspires ‘farm-to-table’ initiative in U.S. Virgin Islands

U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp on Monday with Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty discussing the various initiatives he is pushing in the U.S. territory.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp on Monday with Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty discussing the various initiatives he is pushing in the U.S. territory. Miami Herald

When most people think of farm-to-table, the images that usually come to mind are fresh vegetables and fish being served up at a restaurant. But in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Governor Kenneth Mapp is emphasizing something else — schools.

The territory in the Lesser Antilles spends about $13 million annually on its school-lunch program, Mapp said. Most of that food, he added, is processed and shipped to the islands. Inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama, he now wants the territory’s 16,000-plus schoolchildren eating healthier.

“What Michelle Obama did when she talked about health is how do you really push flavor and taste with health,” he said.

With those instructions, experts are working with farmers in St. Croix to produce fruits, vegetables, and spices for the school system. The dairy products, he said, will come from neighboring Puerto Rico, which is struggling financially but has a thriving dairy industry.

“It’s a better, healthier mix of milk,” said Mapp, who was in South Florida on Monday for the Seatrade Cruise Global industry show. “And we support each other in that region.”

Mapp, who comes from a farming family, has launched several initiatives in the territory since becoming governor 14 months ago. Among them: promoting technology and manufacturing investments from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere around the globe.

He’s also promoting improvements in the port in St. Thomas to keep the lucrative cruise business coming, while trying to build more hotels in the territory.

But getting USVI’s 100,000 citizens healthier while helping local farmers is a priority.

“In the Virgin Islands, we see younger people coming up with renal failure because of diabetes, we see younger people going blind, folks with heart disease and all driven simply by the way we eat,” said Mapp, a hearty guy who has embarked on his own weight-loss journey and is working on shedding 75 more pounds.

Caribbean nations in general have among the highest prevalence of chronic noncommunicable diseases in the Americas, according to the Caribbean Community regional bloc known as CARICOM. The bloc has called on nations to push wellness, noting that diabetes mortality in some Caribbean countries is 600 percent higher than in the mainland United States and Canada.

“Everything doesn’t have to be fried; everything doesn’t have to be full of grease; everything doesn’t have to be five segments of starch on a plate to be healthy,” Mapp said.

Mapp’s emphasis is creating a trend, said Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty. Island restaurants, for example, are increasingly offering a variety of foods, and more restaurants in St. Croix are using locally sourced products.

“We are finding that there is this opportunity for us to really showcase the cultural diversity in Caribbean food and the use of our local products,” she said, noting that an annual agriculture fair in St. Croix and a recently launched Dine VI initiative are also having the added benefit of promoting tourism to the territory.

“Tourism works best when it is an infusion of the community and the visitor,” she said. “People take away experiences and that’s what we see, agriculture, farm-to-table and food as a unifying method of one having an experience. So much of your vacation is centered around what you eat and the people that you meet.”

Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles