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Migrant workers and nutrition: working in "The Garden," but not eating from it

Photo from the Institute for Social and Economic Development

The Central Valley, a large swatch of California between the coast and the Sierra mountains, was until recently, in a state of emergency. The region was in a long drought. The recession didn’t help. People were hungry.

In spring 2010, hundreds of people snaked around a dusty parking lot in Selma, California. During the drought, the state funded emergency food supplies to the small farming community and many others in Fresno County. Some people waited all night for food, sleeping under fluorescent lights, next to a highway.

The state spent more than $13 million on emergency food giveaways, serving more than 200,000 people. But the massive food need then only highlighted a chronic problem in the region – residents have trouble putting food on their table, and what they can access is often unhealthy. Residents are still struggling.

Susana Cruz came from Mexico eight years ago. Today, she’s on Fresno’s east side, dropping off her oldest of two daughters at school. Her husband was out of town on a construction job. Usually, he’s out in the fields picking whatever’s in season. Last year, she says he only made about $10,000. But Cruz is proud to say that her kids never go without food. In Susana Cruz’s household, they have enough food for their two young daughters, but it’s a struggle. Stores around them don’t sell healthy food, she says, and when they do, it’s expensive.

Ironically, experts say that communities with food access problems often struggle with obesity. Edie Jessup is from the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, also known as CCROPP. CCROPP sees diet and food access as a problem of environmental health. Jessup says that solving the obesity problem in the valley will require better city planning. She wants a regional food system – one in which it will be just as easy to distribute fresh produce to a convenient store as it is to deliver a soft drink. 

Stuart Woolf is owner of Woolf Farming and Processing. He showed me around his farmland. Woolf’s farm grows nuts, garlic and onions, and processes tomatoes that you might find in your ketchup or your Bloody Mary’s. Woolf says it’s not so easy to create a local food system when the world demands the valley’s crops. He says, "A lot of it leaves Fresno because we do supply the rest of the nation with some of these crops. I mean almonds, for example, are only grown in the valley here in California, and clearly we’re not growing a diversity to complement a full diet." Woolf says selling local would be desirable to any producer, but the scale of his operation and local lack of infrastructure makes regional distribution impractical.

Woolf suggests a philanthropic approach to the problem. During the drought, Woolf’s son carved out a piece of the ranch and grew food to give away. The project was short-lived, but Woolf allows his farm workers to take home samples of the harvest. But not all farm owners are so generous. Many farm workers say they’re not allowed to bring home what they pick, and they often don’t have access to land to grow food for themselves. Local laws on the books make it hard for communities here in Fresno to establish a healthy lifestyle. Some local groups are working to solve these food problems, and they’re going back to basics.

At this farmers market in downtown Fresno, elementary school kids are lining up to play games. Some are tossing pomegranates into buckets. Jensen Vang from the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, or EOC, manages the market. Educating the youth is a crucial element in creating a new regional food system, say advocates like Vang. Here in Fresno, almost a third of the population is under 18. He says, "Kids have no idea what a persimmon is, kids have no idea what an eggplant looks like. These are some of the examples of fruits and veggies that are out there and if kids don’t know what it is, they’re not going to consume."

There’s another challenge to creating a local market for produce: making incentives for smaller farmers to sell locally. Blong Lee of the Fresno Community Development Institution says they practically had to beg farmers to get them to sell at the local markets. In the meantime, the Central California Obesity Prevention program, or CCROPP, is involved in several initiatives bringing healthy food directly to the community. They’re working with corner stores and setting up farmers’ stands inside low-income elementary schools.

Debbie Register was recruited to sell organic produce at Jane Addams Elementary School for a couple hours today. The stand is right on the basketball court inside the school. Register says it’s hard to say no to kids with no cash. This farm stand isn’t making a profit, but that’s not necessarily the motive.

CCROPP helped set up five farm stands at low-income schools in the past couple of years. Three have survived. The end goal of all of CCROPP’s endeavors? Jessup says, "We’d have people who are healthy and that the bill wouldn’t be pushed over into the healthcare system, which is what is happening now. The food’s cheap, but on the other hand, we’re paying for it in healthcare."

CCROPP’s staff is also training parents to be community organizers, like Susana Cruz. She saw a lack of green space in parks to provide a place for physical activity for her kids. So she worked with her daughter’s elementary school to keep the playgrounds open after hours. School district policy is to keep the grounds closed at nights and weekends.Cruz says she hopes she’s a positive role model for her kids for when they grow up. But right now, she’ll be happy if they’re not craving the soda at the corner store.

This story originally aired on May 2, 2011.