Sunday, November 29, 2009

The irony of food poverty in California's agriculturally rich Central Valley

A September 2009 Wall Street Journal article aptly summarized an ironic recent turn of events in California's Central Valley: As a result of “the combined punch of drought, water restrictions and recession... officials are handing out tons of food in the heart of one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.”

The article briefly described the blights that have fallen upon the area in the past few years and the steps the state has taken to try to remedy the crisis:

The Central Valley… has suffered in the recession amid low demand for products like milk and almonds as well as a collapse in its once-booming housing market. At the same time, the region is grappling with drought and federal environmental rulings that have reduced water shipments to local farmers to as little as 10% of their normal allotments. Some farmers have sidelined much of their acreage, throwing packers and field pickers out of work.

In response, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Fresno County in July 2009. At the same time, he approved four million dollars in food aid to alleviate the problems of hunger and unemployment in the region.

But the last food give-away was completed in mid-November and hunger in Fresno County is far from eradicated. The well intentioned assistance from the state seems to have merely highlighted the paradox of food poverty in California. And a 2008 report from the California Institute of Rural Studies (“CIRS”) adds another layer of irony: “[f]arm workers [and their families] are disproportionately impacted by the food problem.” The CIRS measured food security, “define[d] as access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle,” amongst Central Valley farm workers. As reporter Pauline Bartolone states in a radio program on the same topic, “in Fresno many people don’t know what that’s like.”

An image Bartolone described in the broadcast, “When Food Gets Trucked into a Breadbasket,” captures the apparent injustice. She watched the last day of the dispersal of food aid in Huron, California, as the farm workers who put fruits and vegetables on our tables lined up to receive canned food which they could not afford to buy themselves. The unfortunate realities of the drought and the recession notwithstanding, the question still begs, why are people starving in a region of so much natural bounty?

Bartolone’s report for the National Radio Project illuminates many of the underlying causes of the predicament. First, she points out that farm work is seasonal and low paying, with farm workers earning between “$800 a month at best, and $500 at worst.” With such limited resources, healthy food choices are beyond the budgets of most farm workers supporting families. In past years, workers could augment their regular earnings by taking home produce from the fields. This used to be an easy and convenient source of fresh foods. After the recession hit, however, farmers changed their policies. Workers are no longer allowed to take any of the fruits and vegetables that they pick, according to Nayamin Martinez, of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, who is quoted in the broadcast. Farmers “say they are losing money” because of the practice, she states.

Furthermore, farm workers have limited access to fresh food because of where they live. Ms. Martinez explained that, “[i]f they live in the rural areas, the grocery stores… do not sell those products or if they sell them they are not good…. So if they want to consume those products they need to travel all the way to Fresno.” For many, the cost of gas for that drive is prohibitive.

The problem of food insecurity among farm workers is compounded now as more and more people who lost other jobs in the recession seek to enter the occupation. Ms. Martinez estimated that there are now ten times more farm workers “looking for the same job and less land being harvested.” With shortened harvest seasons due to drought further cutting into farm workers’ earnings, the need in California’s Central Valley has grown to epic proportions. Dana Wilkie, chief executive of the Fresno food bank, reported in the Wall Street Journal article that her volunteers are now serving up to 80 percent of the residents in Fresno County.

Unfortunately, finding solutions is as complicated as the problem itself. Food aid from the Governor cannot be depended upon indefinitely given the current fiscal crisis facing the State of California. Schwarzenegger asked President Obama in June to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area, hopeful that federal funds would “help finance food shipments to the county. But officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request, saying state and local entities had adequate resources.”

Solutions at the grassroots level are just as elusive.
Martinez says her organization is working on a community garden project in Farmersville, but they have run into obstacles. ‘First, there are not a lot of people who… let you borrow the land. Community organizations or even the people don’t have money to buy land so they must rely either on the government or a private person willing to let you use the land. So just getting started is hard.’
Martinez also cited legal problems such as difficulty drawing up contracts for use of the land without professional help as another challenge. Another appealing avenue for change, unionization of the farm workers to fight for issues such as higher wages, is not a viable option either given the National Labor Relations Act does not protect the rights of agricultural workers to bargain collectively.

Hopefully the national news coverage garnered by the irony of the situation will not be all for naught and someone will come to the rescue of farm workers in these troubled times. Perhaps this story can be used the jumping off point for the expansion of domestic Fair Food projects such as the one reported on by this blog earlier this week. Fair Food asks consumers to pay more for their food to ensure fair wages and working conditions for farm workers. Although the economy is not what it once was, the recession should not be an excuse to ignore the plight of farm workers so provocatively dramatized by this story.


aoue said...

Great post! This write-up illustrates how vulnerable farmworkers are to broader economic trends and climate change. Unfortunately, those who provide the majority of Americans (and the world) with inexpensive produce are often overlooked when it comes to wages, living conditions and workplace safety. Hopefully, something can be done to help this often unseen and underappreciated population.

Yooli said...

Wonderful post. I do want to point out, however, that the federal government does provide food assistance through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Basically, the USDA purchases commodities, especially in years where the prices are exceeding low for growers, and then distributes them to food banks and states. For FY2010, TEFAP will have about $250 million from the Farm Bill appropriations, an additional $60 million for dairy products, and whatever remains of the $100 million that was added by the stimulus bill this year.

Obviously, TEFAP isn't enough. In the midst of skyrocketing demand at our nation's food banks, problems like the ones faced in Fresno County are only going to get worse. But it should be a reminder to our policymakers that continued and increased funding for nutrition programs will be vital to our nation's economic recovery.

I've heard this over and over from hunger activists, but if there was ever a time to take food drives seriously, this is it. I hope we'll all remember to donate what we can this holiday season.

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It should be a reminder to our policymakers that continued and increased funding for nutrition programs will be vital to our nation's economic recovery.

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