Food and Poverty in California’s Central Valley

Last summer, I traveled with photographer Joakim Eskildsen to Fresno and other small surrounding towns in California’s Central Valley as part of a multimedia project on poverty in America for TIME Magazine.

What we found uniquely disturbing about Fresno is that while it produces 60 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and is the most productive agricultural region in the world, it is also the hungriest metropolitan region in America, which means it has the highest rate of people who cannot afford to buy food.

We found other contradictions as well: While this region grows some of the most nutritious foods, the childhood obesity rate in Fresno is 10 percent higher than the national average, which means the children lack access to the fresh food produced in their backyard. Also, small family farms that have been around for generations are struggling to keep their head above water, partly because of labor shortages. And yet, unemployment among migrant workers is soaring and they are lining up by the hundreds to receive handouts from food banks. Worse still, the free food they receive comes mostly from cans and boxes, it’s not the fresh food from the fields where they work.  There is a huge disconnect between public policies and the reality on the ground. As one Fresno dairy farmer put it, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

What we discovered through interviews with small farmers, field laborers, charity workers, city officials, activists and other residents is that perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, Fresno’s food system feeds directly into the region’s high poverty rate. Any fix will require a critical look at how we grow, distribute and consume food in the Central Valley as well as how we address hunger needs.

The project we are proposing would look at the the difficult conditions of small farmers and migrant workers, how people in the community don’t have fresh food and rely on food banks and how that affects health, the environment (shipping fruits and vegetables across the country) and the economy.

We were also hoping this project could have a direct impact by the creation of an SMS campaign that could connect small farmers with local farmers’ markets and community resources as well as maybe connecting migrant workers with potential employers. Another idea would be an SMS campaign that would inform people in need of food about food distribution, transportation options, etc. (I think some people just rely on word of mouth at the moment) Lastly, an SMS campaign could be used for donors. Storytelling would engage and motivate this audience to give to the food banks and start a dialogue about solutions.

I believe my reporting and the material I gathered in the field as well as my ideas with Scott Anger can serve as a good foundation for this project.I can also contribute audio profiles and features of farmers, migrant workers, food bank employees and those who receive aid. The profiles/features would include audio, photos and text from the material collected during my trip.

Here are a  few sample audio profiles:

The Nagal Family is struggling to keep their fourth generation farm in operation. They all have to work second full time jobs to make ends meet. They say competition with Wal-Mart and other big producers is sinking them, as well as strict immigration policies that is making it hard for them to find labor.

Click here to hear Brent and Sophie Nagal discuss some of the hardships small farmers are facing.

Miguel Miranda works two jobs to make ends meet, in the field and in a restaurant. He is also taking care of his two children while his wife is in the hospital with cancer. No one in the family has health insurance and he is currently staying in a room with his two boys at his father-in-laws house with whom he is not on good terms.

Hear Miguel Miranda talk about what it’s like to work in the fields and look after his kids: (Interview is in Spanish–needs to be dubbed)

James Koester works as the warehouse manager at Catholic Charities and loves his job. He himself used to be homeless and knows what it’s like to go hungry. He says he has seen the need for free food in Fresno go up in recent years, as the economy has tanked.

James Koester talks about his job as a warehouse manager in the food bank at Catholic Charities.

In addition to audio profiles, I could also produce radio features. Here are a few ideas:

A Tale of Two Farmers–The Fate of the Small Farmer in the United States

Brent and Sophie Nagal Family own a fourth generation farm and they are working second full time jobs to keep the farm in operation. Their son Evan, who is 22, wants to continue the legacy, so he quit his job at Home Depot to work full time on the farm and give his parents a hand. Txeza Cherta Lee, on the other hand, is a Hmong farmer who has invested everything into his farm but is now losing money on the farm every month. His children do not want to maintain the farm because they don’t think it makes financial sense. Txeza is not ready to give up though it is increasingly harder to keep going. Through their stories, I would like to look at the fate of the small farmer in America and what are the implications for the rest of us and our food supply if the small farmer dies out. An interesting fact to note is that farmers are between 65-80 years old. Younger generations don’t want to do it anymore. Evan, The Nagal’s son, is an exception.

Migrants Workers: Is the American Dream dead?

A Pew Hispanic Center study came out this summer saying that net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero and may have reversed.  And many of the migrants from Mexico and El Salvador that we interviewed said immigration laws have become too strict and employment opportunities have dropped because of a drought. They say the American Dream is dead and they want to return to their home countries. We could do an audio feature about the conditions of migrant workers in the Central Valley. We have audio of migrant workers lined up at a food bank waiting for free food and also interviews with migrant workers at home. We would look at the implications of this reverse migration for the towns in which they live, which are 95 percent Hispanic, the economy of the region and the food supply of the country.

We have great photos that could run as a slideshow or photo essay.  Here are a few. (We also have great audio interviews in Spanish for the people pictured in the first two photos below:

Marco Belloso, a 32-year-old from El Salvador, just came home from an eight hour day of manual labor in the fields. He shares this house with three other migrant workers. They live in Mendota and he sends back a portion of his minimum wage salary to his family back home. He says discrimination has gotten worse and work opportunities are drying up, making him consider a move back to El Salvador.

His housemate Pedro Miranda, who also works in the field, just received news that two of his brothers were shot and killed at a coffee shop back home in El Salvador but because of his financial and immigrant status, he wasn’t able to return and bury his brothers and still owes $1500 to the coyote that brought him to the United States. Miranda says the American Dream is over.

California’s Central Valley is some of the most fertile in the country. However drought and harsh immigration laws have lowered agricultural production and caused labor shortages.

Javier Hernandez and Albino Lopez have been working as farm laborers in California’s Central Valley since they emigrated from Mexico forty years ago. It’s a grueling routine but one they’ve grown used to: A truck picks them up at 5 am and transports them to fields where they pick fruits, vegetables and cotton for eight hours a day with few breaks. Heat strokes are common though they have little access to proper health care. At the end of their shift, they return to overcrowded trailers with other migrant workers. When they can, they send a portion of their minimum wage earnings to their families back in Mexico. The day this picture was taken, the labor contractor, for the second day in a row, had sent them home with no explanation and no pay. They said they can’t afford not to work, as they sat outside playing checkers with stones. When the farming season ends in the winter, they’ll head to Alaska to work in the fisheries, like they do every year.

Eric Ramirez shares a narrow trailer with his two siblings and his grandparents in a dusty trailer park for migrant farm workers in Firebaugh, California. Though the area is one of the most fertile in the country and his family works in the fields picking fruits and vegetables, Eric still has to walk more than two miles with his grandmother to a community center where they wait in line for hours to receive free food.

Gary Taylor plays with his children outside their home in Fresno. Since he was fired from his job doing customer service at a food bank, he has not been able to find a job for more than a year. (He is a native of Fresno and has also picked grapes in the field.)

Listen to Gary Taylor talk about his current economic situation.

(I have more story ideas and topics but I will limit this for now.)

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