Earlier this fall, the New York Times’ lead food writer Mark Bittman visited the San Joaquín Valley. In a recent piece for the Times’ magazine, ‘Everyone Eats There,’ Bittman said he came here to explore big farming, small farming, food politics and sustainability – as well as the industry’s impact on natural resources, people, and animals.
During his five-day visit, Bittman experienced the environmental conditions that many of us endure here. He writes:
The air, trapped between mountain ranges, stinks, and the pollution is consistently ranked among the most severe in the country. Worse, there are so many cows nearby in megadairies and feedlots that the air contains microscopic particles of dried dung, enough so that you can taste it. I smelled it on my clothes when I unpacked each night and even brought it home with me. I have never carried Visine in my life, but there I was using it every half-hour.
After visiting huge farming operations and an organic farm, and meeting a Hmong farmer, Bittman lands on this issue:
There must be, I thought (or fantasized) as I traveled through the valley, some movement toward pushing farmers, big and small, to produce decent food sustainably. Because if there’s not, the valley’s problems will only worsen, and we’d be complicit in destroying one of the country’s greatest resources, one that has served us amazingly well until now.
Well, I have an answer for Bittman: There IS a movement pushing for better, more sustainable environmental conditions in the San Joaquín Valley, and it’s bubbling up from the people who are most impacted by these problems.
Yesterday, I participated in an environmental justice bus tour, as part of the launch of the new Fresno Environmental Reporting Network. The network allows residents to report health and environmental hazards in their community, via telephone, text message, e-mail, or the website, www.FresnoReport.org.
During the tour, we visited a farm labor camp in Huron, where residents have to leave their small, cream-colored buildings to use the bathroom or shower. Just down the road, we visited another apartment complex, located next to a “stinky stream,” that turns brownish-red during the tomato harvest. Resident Leonarda Soto told us that when her grandchildren come in contact with the water, they break out in rashes across their bodies.
In Lanare, an unincorporated community surrounded by dairies and chicken farms, we heard about the community’s ongoing struggle for clean drinking water. The community has a water treatment plant, to deal with the high levels of arsenic in the water, but residents can’t afford to operate it, resident Isabel Solorio told us.
With the Fresno Environmental Reporting Network, residents like Soto and Solorio can now report these problems and violations, and get a response from government officials. A task force of community members and government officials will meet monthly to follow up on the concerns and ensure the reports are addressed.
Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, said this network represents a movement toward realistically quantifying cumulative health impacts in the Valley, or all the unhealthy elements to which residents are exposed.
“When a farmworker is exposed to pesticides, they’re not exposed to just one, they’re exposed to dozens – on top of smog, on top of water contamination, on top of particulate matter, so it’s not just one thing,” she said. “The way you think about these things, and the way you regulate all of this pollution, isn’t the way a community member in a real human body experiences it.”
The new network, she said, will empower community members to report health and environmental hazards to government agencies, and ensure their concerns are addressed. The model, she said, represents a new trend in government accountability and transparency, when it comes to health and the environment.
“I think this is going to be the cutting edge issue: How to get regulators and government agencies to start regulating in a way that represents communities’ lived experiences,” Brieger said.
“We’re far from that, but as with so many of these issues, it’s directly affected people who are taking the lead – it is community members, it is farmworkers, it is all the people who experience it saying, ‘Hey, you need to look at this differently.’”
Environmental reporting, previously on Harvesting Health:
During a Zócalo Public Square event on Monday evening, an outstanding panel will tackle a huge question: Why is the Central Valley sick?
By now, we all know the statistics:
Despite its agricultural bounty, the San Joaquín Valley is one of the poorest regions in the country. And despite growing the food that nourishes the nation, the region has high rates of food insecurity and obesity.
Our environment is also sick, and that doesn’t help people’s health. Many low-income communities have contaminated drinking water. We have some of the dirtiest air in the nation, and an epidemic of asthma. Rural communities are exposed to harmful pesticides.
We have a critical shortage of primary care doctors and specialists. But simply adding more doctors to the region – without addressing the other social, economic and environmental factors – could prove nothing but a Band-Aid.
So, what can be done to improve the health of Valley residents?
In the post, ‘This Place is Sick,’ now on Zócalo’s website, I suggested that low-income residents need better access to the healthy fruits and vegetables grown in this region:
The prescription to improve the health of the San Joaquín Valley must begin with the area’s greatest asset: agriculture. I have covered great initiatives intended to make locally grown produce more accessible—including school farm stands, flea markets that accept EBT for produce, conversions of neighborhood liquor stores into corner stores featuring fresh produce, and the development of school gardens, where families can grow the products they are culturally accustomed to.
These efforts require little government funding, yet could improve the health of San Joaquín Valley residents. There is also an opportunity for innovative collaboration between the agriculture industry and health organizations.
I’m very interested to hear how panelists Sarah Reyes, Central Valley Program Manager of The California Endowment, John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, and Edward Palacios, CEO of San Joaquín Valley Rehabilitation, answer the question.
And I’m interested to hear your ideas! Join the discussion on Monday (May 7) at 6:30 p.m. at Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness Ave., in Fresno. Or add your suggestions in the comment section below.
Sofía Gática, of Córdoba, Argentina, was one of six people honored with the international Goldman Prize today. The award, which comes with a prize of $150,00, bills itself as the “world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalism.”
Gática’s story will resonate with San Joaquín Valley residents who have fought for years for health-protective laws regarding pesticides.
About 13 years ago, Gática’s baby daughter died of kideny failure. She soon noticed that residents in her working-class neighborhood of Ituzaingo were also suffering from alarming rates of leukemia, lupus and other diseases, according to this San Francisco Chronicle article.
Gática, who had only a high school education and no organizing experience, formed the group Mothers of Ituzaingó. They went door-to-door in their neighborhood, which is surrounded by soy bean fields, and discovered that pesticides were having a disastrous impact on the health of their community.
They found that only two households had not suffered from illness, according to the Chronicle. That spurred them to begin protesting the use of weed killers with a “Stop Spraying” campaign.
Their efforts eventually led to a ban on aerial spraying of agrochemicals within 2,500 meters of homes. (In comparison, some Valley counties have pesticide buffer zones of 400 meters.)
The short movie below captures Gática’s inspiring story.
When I spoke on the phone with Gática on Monday, I asked her if she had advice for Valley residents who were also concerned about the health impacts of pesticides. Valley communities have also experienced pesticide drift, and inexplicable health problems.
“I recommend demanding the rights to health and the environment,” she said.
She also recommended demanding the right to information – about what types of pesticides are being used, how they are being applied, and close to schools and homes they are being used.
Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, said Gática’s story and advice is an inspiration to Valley residents fighting for health-protective pesticide laws.
Gática’s story, “would be a reminder that communities across the world are facing the same problems with pesticides, and it is very important to learn from each other,” Brieger said.
“The regulations and the rules are stronger in Argentina than they are here in California. We need to learn what it actually looks like to be health-protective.”
I followed Teresa De Anda, a champion for pesticide reform from the tiny Tulare County community of Earlimart; Irma Medellín, a community organizer from the Tulare County city of Lindsay, and a few others through the Capitol. The group was scheduled to speak with three legislators, including Assemblyman Luis Alejo and Senator Michael Rubio.
First, the group spoke with the staff members of two legislators, and asked that the legislators call on Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the fumigant methyl iodide. They also asked the legislators to appoint a new Department of Pesticide Reform director and deputy director who would promote forward-thinking agriculture.
Then, instead of meeting a staff member in Rubio’s office, the group was led to the Senate floor, where they sat in plush red chairs and spoke with Rubio himself. In Spanish and English, they told him about their personal experiences with pesticide drift, and their concerns about dangerous pesticides.
After Medellín told the senator about a recent pesticide drift incident that sickened members of her family, including her three-month-old grandson, he replied, “I sympathize – as someone who grew up on the west side of Kern County, out on a ranch, I can certainly sympathize with you, growing up on fields where they are spraying and there is agricultural production.”
At the end of their meeting, the group took a picture with Rubio on the Senate floor. The meeting was a great example of how a people can give a voice to their community’s concerns, and be a part of the change.
Read more about Irma Medellín and other fighting for a healthier San Joaquín Valley in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.
A new type of environmentalist has emerged in California, panelists said during an ethnic media briefing hosted by New America Media last Wednesday in San Francisco.
“People of color are the strongest environmentalists in the state of California,” said Roger Kim, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which fights for environmental and social justice in low-income Asian immigrant and refugee communities.
“You name the issue, people of color want the highest level of concern and also want stronger action from our government,” Kim said. “It’s the fact that Asians, blacks and Latinos are really bearing the brunt of the burden of environmental pollution in this state.”
That trend holds true in the San Joaquín Valley, too, said Sarah Sharpe, Environmental Health Director at Fresno Metro Ministry. “The communities that bear the brunt of our pollution are getting involved because they don’t want to put up with it anymore,” Sharpe said.
María Arevalos has a simple message for parents and school officials: “Pesticides and schools are a bad combination,” she said in Spanish. “It’s something that should not happen.”
She knows from experience. She believes pesticides sprayed on school grounds once sickened her 8-year-old son, Eduardo, who has asthma. She recalled one day, when her son went to school feeling fine, and returned with nausea and no appetite.
“There is no other possibility,” said Arevalos, a member of the Fresno-based community group Latinos United for Clean Air, who has participated in pesticide awareness trainings in Sacramento and Salinas.
Arevalos spoke about the use of pesticides in schools during the group’s Clean Air, Healthy Family summit at Yokomi Elementary School May 11.
During her presentation, she encouraged parents school officials to place a greater emphasis on integrated pest management – a more healthy form of pest control that uses common sense and simple science to address pest problems, like mulching, controlling weeds, and sealing cracks.
When integrated pest management doesn’t solve the problem, she said, pesticides should be sprayed only when children are not on campus – either after the school, or on the weekend.
Arevalos’ concerns are more than the worries of an informed parent.
According to the recent report “Green Schools Within Reach,” 40 percent of reporting school districts in California continue to use the most dangerous, high-exposure methods for treating weeds and ant problems, despite the passage of the Healthy Schools Act of 2000.
César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was a community health champion more than 20 years ago.
In July and August of 1988, Chávez embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast to bring attention to the unsafe use of pesticides in the fields, and their dangerous health impacts on farmworkers, as well as consumers.
After the fast, in a March 1989 speech at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., Chávez highlighted the risks of pesticides by telling the moving story of the Rodríguez family of McFarland: The wife, Elia, worked in the table grape vineyards around Delano until she was eight-months pregnant. Her son, Johnnie, had cancer and died when he was five years old.
Farmworkers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields, and often the very field where they are working.
Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age – often in the womb.
The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.
Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no childcare.
In the speech, he challenged whether there can be an “acceptable” level of exposure to pesticides.
There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births and deformed babies.
Then why do we allow workers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?
Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of exposure is too much.
Isn’t that the protection you would ask for your family and your children? Isn’t that the standard of protection you would demand for yourself?
Then why do we allow farmworkers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?
Learn more about César Chávez in this week’s edition of Vida. Read more about disease clusters in an upcoming edition of Vida.
For more information about pesticides in the San Joaquín Valley, check out this video by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice:
For years, residents of Kettleman City have lived with many environmental hazards and polluting industries.
The tiny Kings County community is located 3-1/2 miles from a huge hazardous waste landfill. It is located near the intersection of State Route 41 and Interstate 5; has water contaminated with arsenic; and is located near agriculture fields sprayed with pesticides.
A recent state investigation studied these environmental factors, and concluded there was no common cause for 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and March 2010. Three of those babies died.
Even though state officials concluded the community’s polluted water did not cause the birth defects, the need for safe, clean, affordable drinking water was one of the main focuses of a recent public meeting in Kettleman City.
“The floor is cleaner than our water,” longtime Kettleman City resident Dolores Moreno told me during the meeting. “I am afraid every time I turn on the tap.” She said she does not drink the water, but does use the water for everyday activities, like cooking beans, washing dishes, and bathing.
But according to a letter from the state Department of Public Health, it looks like residents of Kettleman City might be on their way to obtaining clean drinking water.
The chief of CDPH’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management considered numerous options for how to improve drinking water in the community. In a Dec. 3 letter, he determined the most cost-effective, affordable, and long-term solution to the problem would be for the Kettleman City Community Services District to drill a new groundwater well, and install treatment for arsenic and benzene.
The groundwater project would cause the community’s water rates to increase. With state and county funding, residential water rates would increase from about $30.05 per month of $32.39 per month.
That rate hike seems to be one hitch so far. According to the letter, the Safe Drinking Water fund considers an “affordable target consumer rate” to be 1.5 percent of the median household income. (In 1999 dollars, the median household income in Kettleman City was $22,409.) The current water rates are about 1.8 percent of the community’s median household income; with the new water project , rates would increase to 1.94 percent of the median household income.
“While the groundwater project is expected to result in water rates that exceed the target consumer rate, the other alternatives presented would require water rates in excess of two percent of the MHI (or as high as $43 per month.),” wrote Gary Yamamoto, chief of the state’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management.
The project is still in the works, but if everything goes according to plan, the new well could be functioning in about a year, said Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of Policy and Programs for the state health department.
On Monday, the state Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Public Health released a draft report of their investigation into the birth defects in Kettleman City between 2007 and March 2010.
Their conclusion: There is no common cause for the birth defects found in 11 babies from this impoverished farmworker community of about 1,500 people. (Read the full story here.)
That news didn’t sit well with Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community activist with the local organization El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water.
“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” Mares-Alatorre told me. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, suggests a solution for how state agenices could determine the exact cause of the birth defects in Kettleman City: Bio-monitoring.
In a phone interview, she said the state agencies could test Kettleman City residents’ blood, urine, or mothers’ breast milk to determine what chemicals are in people’s bodies, and then compare their level of chemical exposure to the national average.
It’s a tool that’s proved effective in other cases, she said.
She said bio-monitoring helped solve a devastating childhood cancer cluster mystery in Fallon, Nevada. There, bio-monitoring discovered a link between tungsten and acute lymphocytic leukemia. (Read an excellent story about that case, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, here.)
“These tools are being used more and more,” said Williams, who grew up in Rosamond, the site of another childhood cancer cluster. “Most of the last clusters investigations have used bio-monitoring to try to identify the exposure.”
“Why wouldn’t you use every available tool that you have to find out what the cause of the problem is?” Williams said. “The investigation would not be complete without doing bio-monitoring.”
Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said bio-monitoring can be an effective tool in public health investigations. But, he said, the state investigation indicated that Kettleman City families didn’t have enough exposure to chemicals or pesticides to warrant using bio-monitoring.
“Bio-monitoring would really pinpoint a chemical, but our investigation did not find that there appeared to be an exposure to chemicals that could be of a significant level to result in birth defects,” Lundeen said.
“It’s clearly a tool in the toolbox, but it didn’t seem to be a tool that would tell us more than we had already learned.”
Herminia Arenas, a farmworker originally from Oaxaca, México, cannot read or write. So when Arenas, a member of the organization Líderes Campesinas (Female Farmworker Leaders) decorated a brown sack with a message about the dangers of pesticides, her message came from her heart.
Arenas’ sack was one of the many colorful sacks that was displayed in Madera Courthouse Park during a Líderes Campesinas press conference and rally Tuesday morning.
Through Líderes Campesinas’ sack – or moralito – project, farmworker women write, draw or embroider on a sack (similar to the ones used while picking produce in the fields) about the dangers of pesticide poisioning.
The project is a visual (and beautiful!) way to spread the message about the dangers of pesticides. It also educates community members about how to protect themselves against pesticide exposure, said Suguet López, director or programs for Líderes Campesinas.
*Click on the photos for a better view of the women’s beautiful bags!
To learn more about Líderes Campesinas, and their recent success in establishing pesticide buffer zones around schools, day cares, homes and labor camps, read next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.