Unlike the whimsical tune every child sang when they were younger (or any adult letting out their inner child might have sung), beans in El Salvador are more than just a magical fruit. They are truly the lifeblood of this country; its heart and soul. Almost everyone in the country eats frijoles rojo (red beans) every day, certainly everyone that lives in the campo (countryside) and everyone of lower-income status. Beans, corn (usually in the form of a thick, small tortilla) and some rice, vegetables and perhaps some chicken makes up the typical lunch and dinner of most of the population. These products are generally cheap, relatively abundant (grown here), and quite nutritious when eaten together. They are such a common combination that canasta basicas are sold widely: “baskets” consist of a bag of dried beans, rice, corn flour, sugar, salt, and perhaps some vegetable oil (buying them together allows people to save a bit of money).
Red beans are an excellent source of protein, calcium, iron, folate, and dietary fiber while being low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. They are easy to make and you can eat them in a pupusa, whole, pureed as a side dish, or in just about any other form you can imagine. They go well with corn, or rice, and just about any vegetable. You can eat them with pork or chicken or even beef. Beans, beans the versatile fruit. Beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, are planted around the world and varieties include the common green bean, kidney beans, black beans, and dozens of others. They are relatively easy to grow, although they prefer drier climates and are known to be plagued by hundreds of kinds of diseases and pests. The small red bean that is commonly grown in Central America is different from the red kidney bean; it is smaller and smoother in taste and texture. It is typically planted after the corn harvest; what the farmers do is cut the corn stalks to about 3 feet tall, and then plant the beans next to the dried stalk. The beans use the corn stalk for support, wrapping their tendrils around the stalk in their climb towards the sun.
The main bean harvest is in August, with a second smaller harvest in December. This year, there were troubles. Harvest time brought torrential downpours, ruining much of the bean crop. This was followed by an extreme dry spell, which caused much of the second crop of beans to fail to germinate. Beans (and the corn before them) are typically planted on steep hillsides that hold little water and are far from any source of water or irrigation. The beans are at the mercy of the rains. The loss of the local bean crop meant that imports have risen, and El Salvador is looking to Columbia, Mexico, and the U.S., since its closest neighbors are also searching for bean imports. Beans are a protected homegrown commodity, which means there are import tariffs on red beans. So the bean prices have risen, to about 66% above what they were last year at this time. The same price hike happened two years ago, following a similar trend of heavy rains preceding a drought, but this time, the reserves are not what they used to be. The Famine Early Warning System Network has issued an alert on El Salvador due to the sharp increase in prices. Indeed, if you look at the graph, the price seems to be rising exponentially.
But $2.41 per kilogram? That does not seem very costly. How many of you eat more than two pounds of red beans each week? Personally, I prefer black beans, which I buy for $1 per pound (last I checked, which to be honest, I don’t really pay attention), and I consume about two pounds each month, not week. But I do not eat beans with every meal, unlike most Salvadorans. And those Salvadorans also typically earn the minimum wage, which varies by sector, but is between $100 and $250 USD per MONTH. Yes, that is mensual. This, in a country where you can buy a $4.75 latte at Starbucks, there are millions who barely earn that in one day. I have lately become increasingly sickened by the yawning disparity between the rich and poor. And when I learn how the some of the people who clean my classroom and the hallways wake up at 4am in order to take three buses to get to the school by 6am to net about $5 per day (subtracting the bus fare and their meals), I can certainly understand why $4 for a 5-pound bag of beans can be called a crisis.
In response, the Salvadoran government has begun subsidizing beans. In Honduras, the government has allowed for duty-free imports and imposed price caps for red beans. The latter has meant they are forcing sales below cost, which is hurting some vendors. Thankfully, the December red bean harvest (the postrera harvest) does not seem like it is going to be as low as predicted, and already red bean prices are not rising as they have been in the past few months. In the mean time, I have been giving the gifts of beans to the wonderful woman who cleans my home and the indefatigable men and women who travel for four hours, round trip, just to sweep the hallways and remove the trash – people who could teach many of us a lesson about being thankful with what we have.
And for the record, the childhood song is misleading: the more beans you eat, the less you’ll “toot” because your intestinal microbes will adjust to the (at first) difficult to digest complex sugars. So go on, eat your beans with every meal!