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Crystal Díaz’s grocery-delivery app PRoduce is pushing to revive Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector and reclaim its foodways. Although the island has a tropical climate where crops can grow year-round, natural disasters and economic crises have all taken their toll, and now Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food. (Plus, a 1920 law requiring all imports to come via American-owned and -crewed vessels contributes to higher prices.) Díaz co-founded PRoduce in 2018 to give consumers and professional chefs alike access to thousands of locally sourced vegetables, fruits, meats, and other goods typically not sold in grocery stores on the island, which in 2014 boasted the most Walmart-owned superstores per square mile in the world. Their app now has nearly 70,000 users, and even delivers. Díaz, who worked in media before getting a master’s in foodtech, also runs El Pretexto, the island’s first “culinary farm lodge.”
The PRoduce app does more than just facilitate the exchange of groceries for money. After Tropical Storm Isaias hit, in 2020, it saved 10,000 plantains before they went to waste. Can you talk about the app’s evolution?
Almost 35% of the food produced worldwide gets wasted. So our problem isn’t food production—it is food distribution. PRoduce was born with this romantic idea of connecting small producers with consumers, but we realized we had also created a logistics business.[The plantains] served as a case study for how we can replicate this with other products, and it doesn’t have to be an emergency. In November, this farmer called and was like, “We’re going to have 3,000 heads of cauliflower per week starting next month.” We created a cauliflower challenge on social media, and I called my chef friends and said, “Can you add a cauliflower dish to your menu? Also, can you share a cauliflower recipe so people can do something at home?” The cauliflower sold out every week.
PRoduce carries the largest variety of local food products in Puerto Rico. It’s also the first app that delivers anywhere, islandwide. Why is it important to do both?
Literally, anywhere. We deliver to the most posh penthouse and to the most remote farmhouse. At the bed and breakfast I own in the mountains in Cayey, I wanted the food to be 100% locally sourced. Before the app, that meant making seven visits to farms, cheese producers, and farmers’ markets to find ingredients. This was happening with lots of other chefs as well. We’ve lost our connection to the people who produce our food. We need to change consumer behavior, teach [consumers] why it’s important to support local producers, not just so they can earn a good living, but also because it’s more nutritious to eat food harvested a couple days ago instead of something that spent three weeks on a ship.
Puerto Rico once had an abundance of food plants—in 1930 it had around 500 species, among the most on the planet. Can the island return to that level?
Puerto Rico lacks data that can help farmers decide what to grow, how much, and for what price. My next project is a food-production index for the island. It will help farmers and chefs understand that if 50,000 heads of cauliflower are sold every month in Puerto Rico, but there are only two farmers on the island growing 5,000 heads, that is a 45,000-heads-of-cauliflower opportunity. There are things that we will never produce here, like garlic. But my dream is that farmers will come to us and ask, “What should we grow?”