Monday, September 17, 2012

Appalachia of the West? another food desert in California's Central Valley

I have written in the past about the critical role that grocery stores play in rural communities, and of the things some places have done to save their grocery store.  Read posts here and here.  Now, Brooks Barnes reports from Mendota, California, population 11,014, about the closing of the city's Westside Grocery, owned by three generations of Riofrios, the most recent being Joseph Riofrio, age 50.
Last month, Mr. Riofrio, a City Council member and former mayor of this Central Valley town, where a street is named after his grandfather, pulled the plug--done in by a 38.7 percent unemployment rate, the foreclosure and credit crises and hoped-for economic help that never came.  "How can a community in the heart of the most abundant farmland on earth suffer this way?"  Mr. Riofrio said, fighting back tears.  
The story tells of how the store's gas pumps went by the wayside in the 1980s, as a consequence of "too much regulation," Barnes reports.  Fresh meat followed in the 1990s because too few could afford it.  Ditto fresh milk.  Most recently, Westside had stopped selling even beer because of the high cost of electricity to keep it cold.

Mendota is the self-proclaimed Canteloupe Center of the World, and now--as Riofrio's sad comment suggests--parts of it look more like a food desert, though a major supermarket and many Bodegas remain.  Plus, as some lament, the closure of Westside Grocery represents a loss in community.

By some measures, the poverty rate in this place is about 50%, and fewer than 31% of the city's residents have a high school diploma.  It's not surprising, then, that Mendota has been called the Detroit of California and the Appalachia of the West.  Arnold Schwarzenegger once held Mendota out as a poster-child for the Central Valley's drought, seeking federal relief that never came.  Like many Central Valley communities and rural places throughout California and the U.S., the city sought to attract prisons.  But when a federal prison opened in 2009, it did little to alleviate the unemployment problem in Mendota because it brought many of its employees from other facilities.

Brooks notes that the fate of Central Valley towns often rests on the availability of water and the crop that needs picking.  Previously an area where corn, bell peppers, tomatoes and melons were grown, Mendota has been especially hard hit by California's water wars, with thousands of acres left fallow because water supplies have been limited by efforts to preserve fish habitats, presumably in the Delta.  Salt buildup from flawed irrigation and drainage systems is another problem.

Rick Wartzman, an expert on the Central Valley and director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate Institute, is quoted:
There is more than one root problem, which is what makes Mendota so tricky to deal with.  ...  Immigration, water politics, labor patterns, the tendency for California to forget its middle, farm legislation--it all contributes to the downward spiral.
It strikes me that the same could be said of so many rural communities in the United States, whether farming dependent or not.  Just as California forgets its middle, so seemingly does the nation.

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