Shopping for food in Cuba isn’t as simple as it is in most other countries. Ever since 1962, there has been a rationing system in place that continues today. Each month, the government provides a set amount of basic food items for each family at heavily subsidized prices. The intent behind the system is to ensure that everyone can afford basic groceries.
Every family gets a booklet each year that outlines what they are entitled to, broken down into a list per month. Someone using the booklet has to go shop at the local store for their area (usually called a bodega), and their booklet is marked by the clerk to show what has been purchased. Cubans can only shop at their designated store when buying ration groceries.
Food in Cuba that is part of the ration system include rice, beans, sugar, coffee, milk (for children only), bread, salt, coffee and bananas. Eggs are available in certain seasons, and meat is distributed just twice a month in small quantities. Non-food things like soap, cooking oil, and toothpaste are also rationed. The amount provided per family is usually not enough to last for an entire month, accounting for about half or a third of their needed consumption.
So for the rest of groceries, Cubans must shop at free-market stores where the prices can be up to 20 times what the rationed foods cost.
Political changes in Cuba under Raul Castro have led to changes in the ration system. With a final goal of eliminating the ration books altogether, some items have been recently removed. A pound of peas used to cost less than a penny, and now Cubans must pay 17 cents for a pound of peas on the open market. Potatoes have also been taken off the ration list.
Unfortunately, without the ration system (known in Cuba as the libreta), average people are not able to afford enough food to feed their families. Major improvements in the economy and wages will need to be implemented before food in Cuba becomes affordable without these ration subsidies.
If you are interested in Cuban cuisine, you can see what the Cuban dishes page has to offer.
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