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Migrant Workers and Nutrition: Working in "The Garden," But Not Eating From It

Fellowship Story Showcase

Migrant Workers and Nutrition: Working in "The Garden," But Not Eating From It

Picture of Pauline Bartolone

California's Central Valley has by far the highest agricultural production in the country. But those who work the land often don't benefit from the fresh fruits and vegetables they harvest. Most farm workers in the area are Latino, and many of their families suffer from health and obesity problems. Reporter Pauline Bartolone traveled to Fresno to find out why California farm workers aren't getting the food they need.
Monday, May 2, 2011

PAULINE BARTOLONE: 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, just last year, 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. Even after the drought's over, 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.

SUSANA CRUZ (translated from Spanish): My parents kill themselves working all day so they can provide a plate of food for their kids. Maybe it's not very good food, but it's what we can give them.

Cruz has a different relationship to food than when she did when she was in Mexico.

CRUZ (translated from Spanish): We would want to get tortillas or ride our bikes to the market because it was only a few blocks away. We would raise chickens - that would be food for us. Here, the city doesn't allow us to raise chickens. We can plant some things, but we only have a little patch to grow in.

Cruz has educated herself about the food access problems here in the Central Valley. In a recent study of farm workers in Fresno County, one in 10 reported hunger, and nearly half were found to be food insecure. That's a fancy way of saying they don't have enough access to healthy food all the time.

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.

CRUZ (translated from Spanish): Let's say we give our kids each a dollar for the walk to school and back home. They usually want to stop for water. If they go into one of the liquor stores, the water costs $1.50 or $2. A fountain soda costs or even $0.79. So if you can't afford to give them more, what do you think our kids are going to drink when they get to the store? A soda. Why? Because they can't afford the water.

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.

EDIE JESSUP: The cheapest food is the worst for your health. And when push comes to shove, people who are poor have to respond to what they can afford.

CCROPP sees diet and food access as a problem of environmental health.

JESSUP: We were for a while talking about food deserts where there were neighborhoods or small communities that had no access to food whatsoever. We still have those areas, but really what has happened in most of our communities is that we have food swamps - fast food and food that isn't healthy, very accessible to people, but not food that's healthy for them.

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.

JESSUP: I mean it's from the farm to all these things in between. It gets picked, it gets shipped, it gets sugar and salt and fat added in many cases, and then it comes back again to our communities, and it starts feeling like we don't have choices. And it's all soda and chips and that's all there is.

A regional food system is far from reality in Fresno County. The $5 billion agricultural industry is geared to feed the nation and other countries. Stuart Woolf is owner of Woolf Farming and Processing. He showed me around his farmland.

STUART WOOLF: Where we are right here you can kind of go anywhere within a couple mile radius and you'll be on the ranch.

Woolf's farm grows nuts, garlic and onions, and processes tomatoes that you might find in your ketchup or your Bloody Mary's. Like many other farmers in the area, he was hit by the drought and the water cutbacks. Woolf says it's not so easy to create a local food system when the world demands the valley's crops.

WOOLF: 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: No grower or no processor wants to put a lot of freight and cost into something to try to sell it. So all that we can do to sell this stuff locally is great, but you know, we're producing in such a bounty here of this stuff - I don't think we could consume it all. So, we're going to continue to export it. The numbers, we just can't handle it all here.

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.

WOOLF: Anybody who wants to eat on this farm, if they'd like tomatoes and almonds and what have you, there's a bounty out here to be had.

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 where they can grow food for themselves. Local laws on the books make it hard for communities here in Fresno to establish a healthy lifestyle. Owning chickens, for example, is not allowed in this agricultural city or county. And until recently, a city ordinance prohibited farmers markets in residential areas.

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.

JENSEN VANG: You'll be surprised. There are actually farm workers' kids out here not knowing their own fruits and veggies, and so that was a shock to me.

Educating the youth is a useful element in creating a new regional food system, say advocates like Vang. Here in Fresno, almost a third of the population is under 18.

VANG: Kids have no ideas 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.

BLONG LEE: There are people that go to the Bay Area, to Oakland, to San Francisco, to sell their produce. So they would farm during the week, and on Friday, they would pack up and they would drive to the Bay Area or down south and sell the produce and come back. And the reason they would rather do that is you know - for example, a bundle of vegetables would cost $1 here. Well maybe down in LA you could sell it for $5.

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: And today I have some small red potatoes, some rainbow Swiss chard. Everything's organic, by the way, and local...

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: Right after the bell rings for kids to get out of school, I am just bombarded all the way around my table, and they're asking all kinds of different questions.

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: 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 (translated from Spanish): There are no parks close by where we can get the kids out. The streets aren't safe here for walking. So as parents we say, "We're not going to wait three or four years for a park to be built! Our kids are getting chubby and unhealthy. So we want to take them out to walk and exercise."

She 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.