Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952

By González, Elisa M. | Centro Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952


González, Elisa M., Centro Journal


abstract

This article examines nutrition sciences, policies, and politics in Puerto Rico from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Tracing the activities of various experts within this multidisciplinary field, it considers how changing historical circumstances shaped the interaction between nutrition knowledge, public health projects, and politico-economic agendas. Representations of malnutrition as a problem of deficient diets resulting from insufficient local food production contributed to cement the land question as a central element of the early Popular Democratic Party (PPD) discourse. However, technological changes after World War II facilitated the subordination of agricultural diversification as part of public health interventions to fight malnutrition. [Keywords: nutrition, history, Puerto Rico, public health, agriculture, Popular Democratic Party]

"We believe there should be an extensive campaign promoting the cultivation of acerola trees and encouraging Puerto Rican families to consume this fruit frequently. This would be a low cost alternative to ameliorate the vitamin C deficiency suffered by most of our fellow citizens"

- asenjo 1947: 225

"The policy of supplying skim milk to our people, through the government and private commerce, is not an issue to be discussed by the public opinion or a mere recommendation of the Nutrition Committee; it is a decision that I took as Governor of Puerto Rico"

- muñoz to pons, march 7, 19491

among its many effects, the political and social turbulence of the 1930s increased the visibility of puerto rico's public health and medical problems. The creation of special New Deal reconstruction programs for the island was in part a response to the severity of Puerto Rico's public health issues and lack of medical infrastructure. These programs also promoted the expansion of biomedical research to investigate prevalent infectious diseases and nutrition disorders. Biochemist Conrado Asenjo was among those scientists who tried to devise strategies to combat malnutrition, considered one of Puerto Rico's major health scourges during this critical period. Trained under leading biochemists in the United States and in the recently opened Puerto Rico School of Tropical Medicine, Asenjo started his career investigating the potential of foodstuffs native to the island to nutritionally complement the traditional rice, beans, and root crops diet. His most celebrated discovery occurred as part of a series of studies sponsored by Puerto Rico's Department of Agriculture and Commerce during the early 1940s. In collaboration with chemistry technicians from the Agricultural Experiment Station in Río Piedras, Asenjo proved that the vitamin C content of a little known fruit called acerola surpassed that of any other foodstuffknown at the time (Asenjo 1946; Asenjo and Freire de Guzmán 1946). Biochemists and agricultural scientists further studied the potential of the West Indian Cherry, as acerola was known in the scientific literature, to treat nutritional deficiencies and the possibilities for its mass cultivation (Asenjo and Moscoso 1950; Aróstegui et al. 1955). Home economists and extension workers conducted educational campaigns to popularize the consumption of this and other native fruits and to correct "fallacies" and "superstitious beliefs" people had about them (Roberts and Stefani 1949; Roberts 1952, 1957; Seijo de Zayas 1952). Before and after becoming Governor, Luis Muñoz Marín was also actively involved in public health efforts to attend to Puerto Rico's nutrition problem. These efforts were greatly aided by improvements in dairy technologies after World War II, which made possible the creation of a palatable beverage with skim milk solids. This product gave new alternatives for public health experts in their fight against malnutrition and served the new Muñoz government in fulfilling the promise of "better nutrition for Puerto Ricans" (Seijo de Zayas 1955; Ortíz Cuadra 2005). …

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