“The two largest income generators for the Cuban government are tourism and nickel which combined generate about $4 billion for Cuba’s economy (about $2 billion each),” Rosson said. “The Cuban government purchases less food when income from either of these industries decreases.”

More than 2 million tourists vacationed in Cuba in 2009. Tourists consume most of the available high-value commodities at popular vacation destinations including the city of Varadero on the north coast. More than half a million visitors descend on the city’s white sandy beaches annually. Canadians are the top vacationers in the country.

Cuba is the eighth largest nickel producer in the world with the second-highest nickel reserve behind Russia. Cuba received 24 cents per pound for nickel in 2007, but dropped to 11 cents per pound in 2011. The 50 percent price reduction has lowered income for the Cuban government, leading to reduced food purchases from the U.S. and other suppliers.

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is 745 miles long with mostly flat to rolling terrain. About 75 percent of the land is government owned. About 50 percent of the land is agricultural; equally split between crop production and pasture land for livestock. The major crops grown include sugarcane, coffee, vegetables, tropical fruit, roots and tubers.

Today, Cuban farmers produce about half of the nation’s annual food requirements for the 11.5 million residents. In some years, Cuban food production falls 70 percent to 80 percent short. The U.S. fills about 40 percent of the void on average. Other suppliers include Europe, Canada, Brazil, Vietnam and Argentina.

“Cuban farmers struggle to maintain consistent crop yields,” Rosson said. “The country is located in ‘Hurricane Alley’ where storms can devastate Cuba’s agricultural industry when multiple hurricanes hit the country in a single year. Cuba also struggles with insect pressure and water quality issues including salinity.”

Cubans receive a government food ration supply booklet to purchase food; mostly lower-priced food including rice and beans. This ration system is under phase-out to save money for the government — raising food costs to the average Cuban citizen.

Higher-value products including pork, beef, chicken, condiments, orange juice and pork are usually served to tourists.