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:
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Eng, makes it state policy that every person has access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. The law requires state agencies — like the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Department of Public Health — to consider this position when making a water policy decision.
On Monday night, during the monthly meeting of the Community Water Center’s community group AGUA, residents who can’t drink their tap water and their allies recalled their efforts to support and pass the bill.
Residents and their advocates spent several years traveling to Sacramento and sharing their struggles for clean water with legislators, they said. They offered the legislators plastic bottles of their communities’ drinking water and dared people to sample the ‘San Joaquín Valley Kool-Aid,’ they said, laughing.
They recalled that their lack of access to clean, affordable drinking water made international news in March 2011, when the United Nation’s Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville.
The bill’s passage, they agreed, was cause for celebration. So, a mariachi band played everyone’s favorite songs. Chairs were cleared away so people could dance. There was so much food and cake.
Vida photographer Daniel Cásarez’s photos capture the joy and camaraderie of the evening.
But the event was more than a chance to dig into Fresno’s best ice cream. It was also an opportunity for friends of this blog, and health and environmental advocates, to come together, in real life, to discuss how community health and environmental justice issues impact their daily lives.
To foster this discussion, I wrote simple, personal questions about health and the environment on index cards. After savoring their paletas, party guests picked a card, and then wrote their answers on a white board.
Below are their answers, in their own words.
What community health issue makes you tick?
Paleta: stawberries and cream
Paleta: stawberries and cream
Name one change you would like to see in our community health or environment.
Paleta: mango and chile
Camille, Phoebe and Angelica
Paleta: coffee, cookies and cream
How does the environment impact your health?
What have you done to improve your health, or the health of our community?
Paleta: yogurt and fruit
What have you done to improve our local environment?
Thanks to everyone who made it to the party, and thanks for supporting health blogging in the San Joaquín Valley! And thanks to La Reina, for providing the sweet treats. If you missed the party, drop me a note, and we’ll meet up for a paleta in the future!
Now I want to hear from you. What have you enjoyed reading about on Harvesting Health? What would you like to read more about?
In keeping with tradition, I will be celebrating Harvesting Health’s second birthday next Friday, June 8, at 3:30 p.m., at Fresno paletería La Reina de Michoacán.
Come for the fantastic paletas (did somebody say strawberries and cream?) and stay for the informal discussion about community health and environmental justice. It’s on me – especially if you are open to sharing your health and environmental goals, for an upcoming Harvesting Health feature!
RSVP by leaving a note in the comments section below – or by sending me a tweet!
It will take both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure that all San Joaquín Valley residents have access to clean and affordable drinking water. The 2012 Human Right to Water bill package, which is currently making its way through the legislature, could establish some of those long-term solutions.
Last week, I spoke with Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, who is the author of two of the bills in the package.
“It took decades of bad policy and poor oversight for these communities to get where they are today, and it is going to take some time to fix those problems,” Perea told me.
One of Perea’s bills, AB 1669, would create a ‘Nitrate At-Risk Area Fund,’ which would be used to develop and implement solutions for low-income communities that are at risk of nitrate contamination. These communities would be identified by the state Department of Public Health and the state Water Resources Control Board.
The bill would prioritize funding for areas contaminated with nitrates, and reduce the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent smaller communities from taking advantage of existing funds, Perea said. It targets an ongoing challenge to implementing drinking water solutions, Perea said: there is “always more need than there is resources,” he said.
Another bill, AB 2238, would promote consolidation of small water systems or infrastructure extension, when these actions can help improve access to safe and affordable drinking water in disadvantaged communities.
Specifically, it would improve the ability of Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) to identify and study opportunities for consolidation and service extension. It would also require the state department of health to promote consolidation, prioritize funding for projects involving consolidation of small water systems, and prioritize funding for consolidation projects that promote safe and affordable drinking water.
Instead of having small water districts serving nearby communities, “we would like to see the larger water districts take in those service areas to create greater efficiency,” Perea said. This, he said, would save taxpayer money, and would create economies of scale, so one community does not get left behind.
Both of Perea’s bills are expected to reach the Appropriations Committee in mid-May.
Other bills in the Human Right to Water package include:
AB 685, by Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park,) which would establish the human right to water as a statewide policy priority;
AB 2334, by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino,) which would require the Department of Water Resources to conduct an analysis of water affordability every five years;
AB 1830, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella,) which would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to order restitution to mobile home park residents where it finds that the park owner charged unjust or unreasonable water rates.
During the month of April – in recognition of Earth Day - Vida en el Valle ran a four-part series called Latinos Protecting la Tierra.
The five people featured in this series are true environmental advocates. They are proof that California residents can make an impact on the environmental health of their communities.
Three of the five people were farmworkers, or children of farmworkers. Two of the five have college degrees. They have organized people to fight for health and environmental justice; demanded health-protective laws and actions; and created policies that protect health and the environment for the long-term.
Here is one last look at the people featured in the series.
A community leader in Mecca, where a horrible smell from a nearby facility sickened kids and residents
“This is where I live, and this is where my kids live, and this is where I want my kids to grow up. I want to make sure that my kids and my community and I have the same opportunity to live in a place where we have the chance to be happy and healthy, just like the people on the west end of this Valley do.”
Representing Eastern Riverside and Imperial counties
“I just hope that when this is all said and done, and I look back at this, I can say that we did some great work, and we brought our work and our community closer to justice. I can die with that. I’d be fine with that. I’d be cool.”
“We were the underdog community of color, fighting this multi-million dollar company that was pretty much nationwide. Here we were, highschoolers, trying to bring down this company, and finally after so much advocacy, so much press, so many meetings, so many technical documents — we won.”
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.”
What would you do if horrible smells of human waste and gas began wafting into your neighborhood? How would you respond if those smells began sickening your own children, elementary school students, and community residents?
When Celia García, below, was faced with the nightmarish reality last year in her hometown of Mecca, in the Eastern Coachella Valley, she responded by becoming an environmental and community advocate.
As you can read in ‘An advocate blooms in the desert,’ the second story in Vida’s series, Latinos Protecting la Tierra, García and her boys went door-to-door in a neighborhood in sight of a soil recycling facility, to inform people of the situation. She joined a group, Líderes por un Mecca Limpio, to remind residents that the smell could be a symptom of a more dangerous environmental problem. She stood up to government officials, and demanded answers.
In this awesome audio slide show, created by Alejandra Alarcón of Coachella Unincorporated, García explains that she did all of this to protect the health of her family, and her community. She is still inspired by a comment her nephew made last winter, after his school was evacuated due to the sickening odor.
García’s nephew, C.J., said he no longer felt safe at school and, “for me that was heartbreaking,” she says at the end of the slide show. “And that day it became so personal and since that day, I knew there was no way that I would ever feel that way again. And I know that this community is worth all the fight, and all the attention, and all the hard work that’s being put into it.”
Verónica Mendoza and her daughter, Joanna, pictured below, are also featured as part of Latinos Protecting la Tierra this week. Verónica and Joanna live in the Tulare County community of Cutler, where the drinking water is contaminated by the long-banned pesticide DBCP.
Joanna, 16, was featured in this Nick News program about communities throughout the world that don’t have access to safe drinking water.
Lupe Martínez has – quite literally – played a role in two of the state’s great social justice movements.
As an organizer and leader for the United Farm Workers, and then the environmental justice movement, Martínez can always be counted on to sing and strum songs, including ‘De Colores’ – the UFW’s unofficial anthem – as a way to motivate and unify people.
But there’s a story behind his guitar skills.
In a recent interview, in advance of Vida’s upcoming series on environmental justice leaders, Martínez said he developed his musical skills during a challenging period in his life.
In 1977, Martínez, then a farmworker, was fired after his employer discovered he had been attempting to organize his fellow workers around UFW causes.
“I got blacklisted,” he said, explaining that no other companies would hire him. Martínez started playing the guitar, “out of hunger, and paying my bills,” he said.
“The guitar came as a result of the need – and I needed bad,” he said.
He learned how to play the guitar, and then started performing in bars. Eventually, he started to make a living off it.
Just as the guitar gave him hope during a period of unemployment, his music has also brought people encouragement.
“Anytime there is a rally, you can always count on Lupe and his guitar to motivate people and give them courage,” said Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre.
Music, “just releases sometimes a lot of the pressure that’s on that moment,” said Martínez, who is now the assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “And it just unites people – period.”
The video clip below features Martínez singing at a Central California Environmental Justice Network meeting in Wasco.
Read more about Martínez’s roles in the farmworker and environmental justice movements in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.