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:
Click here to hear Brent and Sophie Nagal discuss some of the hardships small farmers are facing.
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 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:
Listen to Gary Taylor talk about his current economic situation.
(I have more story ideas and topics but I will limit this for now.)