The Breadfruit Institute is a research partner based in Kaua'i.
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Jungle Foods buys fresh breadfruit from small, often remote farms, collecting it by truck and saving a critically important regenerative crop from being hacked down in favor of banana or sugarcane plantations.
Breadfruit came to Costa Rica in the late 1800s, carried there by emigrating former enslaved people from the Caribbean. It was a tool for independence, a reliable food supply for a new life. Descendants of the original trees now grow all along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, mainly in backyard agroforests—multilevel intercropped farms that mimic the biodiversity and structure of wild forests. The breadfruit trees are remarkably good at building soil health and drawing down carbon while producing huge quantities of nutritious, versatile food. And they’re very easy to grow.
But in recent times, families started cutting down their trees. “They could only eat so much. And nobody was buying the fruit. It was dropping to the ground and rotting there,” says Jungle Foods cofounder Gustavo Angulo. Also, many of these farm families were living in extreme poverty. Jungle Foods was founded to try to solve both problems and create a model that could be used in other tropical nations.
The seeds of the company were planted in 2014, at EARTH University in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. Gustavo, then a senior at the university, met Paul Zink, a former New York filmmaker-turned-agroforester working on an ambitious breadfruit project on the university grounds. Paul was fired up about breadfruit’s potential to regenerate soil. He had concluded, after a year of listening to local farmers who typically had just a couple of trees, that they would be interested in planting more breadfruit if it made them money. “They unanimously said, ‘Who’s going to buy the surplus?”
So, Paul persuaded EARTH to support a large on-campus breadfruit agroforest to explore best practices for commercial-size plantings. Gustavo planted the trees for his senior project, intercropping them with laurel, citrus, plantain and cacao. Using what they’d learned from the EARTH farm, Paul and Gustavo formed Jungle Foods to help farmers get breadfruit agroforests underway.
Over the next few years, Jungle Foods created a market for the fruit by processing it into flour. The market opportunity means farmers earn more income and make good use of the nutritious fruit, and it incentivizes them keep their trees or expand plantings, thereby enriching the soil and offsetting climate change. Jungle Foods also trains farmers in agroforestry techniques to increase the yield and quality of all the foods grown there.
Locating the farms isn’t easy, since they’re tucked away in a jungly swath of the Caribbean coast. Basically it involves driving door to door down country lanes, asking whether there’s breadfruit growing in the back yard.
Then the Jungle Foods team sends in harvesters to pick the fruit at exactly the right stage, when its starch content is highest and before the flesh softens and sweetens. The Costa Rican variety is known simply as fruta de pan. Naturalized in Costa Rica for more than a century, it’s very large—“some are bigger than my head,” says Paul. It’s also dense and pure white with no seeds, making it ideal for flour.
Once harvested, the breadfruit is weighed, sorted for quality, and trucked to a collection point where fruit from all the farms arrives. From there, things have to happen quickly. “Within 24 hours, you lose it since it ripens so fast,” Gustavo says. “It goes from potato to mango.” The collected fruit immediately goes to a processing facility where it’s washed, peeled, carefully dehydrated and milled into flour. Versatile, shelf-stable and gluten-free, the flour can be used for any number of products, especially baked goods.
Only a few years after Jungle Foods’s founding, more farmers are starting to ask about planting breadfruit, Gustavo says, and he’s seeing it at more local markets, too. Breadfruit is beginning to earn the esteem it deserves.
Jungle Food’s long-term goal is to create a breadfruit agroforestry model that’s replicable in other nations, with breadfruit farmers receiving training on every part of the supply chain from planting to processing, and getting a share of the profits. “It’s healthy for soil, healthy for the farmer and healthy for the consumer. It’s every piece,” Paul says. “It should continue to grow—not extract but regenerate, so the farmer gets more prosperous over time, reversing a centuries-old system of exploitation.”
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