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:
On Monday and Tuesday mornings, more than 200 workers from Gargiulo, Inc. participated in a labor strike along Manning Avenue in rural Mendota.
By the time I arrived to the field site around 8 a.m. yesterday, the San Joaquín Valley was already beginning to bake. The workers wore their typical field clothing: long pants, long shirts, hats, and bandanas covering their heads and mouths. But instead of picking tomatoes, the workers waved the United Farm Workers’ red flag as cars and trucks zoomed down the road, as they had done since about 4 a.m.
The workers decided to strike, “to demand better working conditions, better treatment and, most importantly, respect, including a better salary,” Antonio Cortes, the UFW’s internal organizer coordinator, told me in Spanish. The workers’ main concern, he said, is the employer, “has made many promises, but they have not kept these promises.”
For example, “we ask for a wage increase, and they say they will give it to us – but we are deceived,” explained employee Jesús Zúñiga, who has been with the company since 1999.
Around 8:15 a.m., the farmworkers traveled to the company’s packinghouse in Firebaugh, where workers like Marcelino Pacheco, above – who had already signed a card authorizing the UFW to represent him, and had proudly pinned it to his shirt – encouraged the packinghouse workers to join their push for union representation. They chanted various slogans: Que es lo que queremos? Un contrato! (What do we want? A contract!) and Si no piscamos, no se empaca! (If we don’t pick, there is nothing to pack!)
The video below captures the energy of the morning:
UPDATE: This morning between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., the Gargiulo workers voted on whether to unionize or not. The votes will be counted at 11:30 a.m.
There is a moment – when I am driving over the Grapevine from Southern California, and begin the descent into Central California – when I see the entire San Joaquín Valley expand before me.
Despite the regional issues I often write about – like air pollution, contaminated drinking water, health disparities, and poverty – my heart fills with joy at the sight of the abundant Valley.
I haven’t yet picked up ‘Valley of Shadows and Dreams,’ a book of essays and photographs about the Central Valley by Ken and Melanie Light, but I suspect it captures some of these contradictions.
On their website, the Lights’ project is described as a “five-year photography journey of a region known for its agricultural plenty – and the marginalization of its people.” The book, “digs deep into the harsh truths of farm workers’ daily experience in California’s Central Valley and takes a hard look at the legacies of politics, bureaucracy and control in the region.”
Interested in learning more?
Ken and Melanie Light will be at Arte Américas tomorrow (June 2) for a reception, conversation and book signing. The reception, featuring musical guests Patrick Contreras and Steve Ono, begins at 4:30, and the conversation starts at 5:15, with the book signing to follow.
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.”
This weekend, Jewish families across the country and globe will gather together to celebrate the start of Passover. If United Farm Worker leader César E. Chávez were still alive, he might observe the Jewish holiday, too.
In my research for an upcoming story, I learned that Chávez used to hold Passover seders – ceremonial holiday dinners – inside the Pan y Vino hall at the UFW headquarters, also known as La Paz, in the Tehachapi Mountains community of Keene.
He would invite rabbis from Los Angeles to lead the union members in prayers, and in the re-telling of the Passover story – the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
“He took a real interest and comfort from Passover,” said Marc Grossman, Chávez’s longtime speech writer and personal aide. The story of Exodus, “meant a lot to him.”
If you will be observing the Passover holiday this weekend, consider bringing some universal social justice themes into your celebration.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted the second Food and Justice Passover Seder. In the Haggadah – the text read during the seder – the Jewish social justice organization Bend the ARC framed the holiday as an opportunity for people to renew their commitment to social justice values, including:
No one goes hungry in this land of plenty and everyone has access to healthy and affordable food;
Our food is grown in ways that are environmentally sustainable;
All food production workers, from farmers to processors, drivers, and grocery and restaurant workers have safe workplaces and fair wages.
Above: Three religious sculptures in the Peace Garden at La Paz.
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.
From my community health reporting in the San Joaquín Valley, I’ve learned that rural healthcare is essential and thriving. But there are significant challenges, too.
Dr. Victor Silva’s experiences exemplify these challenges. Silva was raised in Orange Cove by farmworker parents, and is now a medical resident with UCSF Fresno, working at Adventist Medical Center in Selma.
Compared to when he was growing up, he believes residents of rural communities now have more access to medical care, as more clinics have opened. But, he said, “as far as patients taking advantage of it – who know how that’s going.”
Transportation – especially to receive specialty care – is one of the biggest barriers to care, Silva said. His facility responds to this by bringing some specialists – like cardiologists, urologists, and orthopedists – directly to Adventist Medical Center, at least once a month.
Still, he said, “when we have to send our patients to Fresno for specialty care, a large percentage of those visits – they never make it.”
Transportation becomes a huge issue in emergency situations – like pregnancy, he said. He told the story of a pregnant woman who called an ambulance to travel from San Joaquín to Selma – a trip of at least an hour – because she was having contractions. When he asked why she called the ambulance, she said she didn’t have a ride, and she was very scared.
Residents of rural communities also face challenges in managing chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, he said. “If people don’t see the physical manifestations on a daily basis, that makes it hard,” he said. “When they are not seeing physical manifestations, they tend not to come in for just maintenance care.”
But as we will discuss during the event, providing this care is becoming difficult – especially as budget cuts strain the safety net, at a time when clinics are also preparing for the influx of new patients who will gain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
Nicholás Chávez, 16, of Tipton, suffered from heat illness this summer after he worked the night shift in the pepper fields, when the temperature was still in the triple digits, according to Vida en el Valle.
Armando Ramírez, 16, of Arvin, died this summer after he was overcome by fumes inside an 8-foot-deep drainage tunnel at Community Recycling and Resource Co. in Lamont, according to the Bakersfield Californian.
María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez, a pregnant 17-year-old, died of heat stroke in 2008 after collapsing in a Farmington vineyard, according to Vida.
For the first time in 40 years, the Department of Labor has proposed updates to the country’s child labor regulations. Tougher regulations, advocates say, could have protected the health of these San Joaquín Valley youth, and the health of other children who work in the agriculture, which is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous industries in the country.
The country’s child labor laws, “have not been touched in over 40 years, despite that the agricultural landscape has changed a lot – there’s a lot more chemicals, and a lot more machinery,” said Norma Flores López, director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ Children in the Fields campaign.
“Instead of kids doing this kind of work, let’s keep these kids from doing this type of work until they are 16. We’re asking kids to wait until doing more dangerous work.”
The proposed regulations would prevent children 16 and under from participating in the riskiest agricultural jobs – like driving tractors, herding animals into confined spaces, working on ladders, working inside a manure pit, working in the tobacco industry, and handling used pesticide containers.
The regulations would, “help keep kids from being able to do very dangerous work, while still being able to maintain the family-farming exception,” Flores López said.
“What this really boils down to is making sure that we are protecting the well-being of children,” she said. The regulations, she said, “make sure that the safety of kids are being put first.”
In a statement, the National Farmers Union – which advocates for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities – also said it supports the intent of the regulations, as long as they don’t discourage kids from learning about agriculture.
“Farming is not simply an occupation, but a lifestyle that has been passed down from generation to generation,” said NFU President Roger Johnson.
“In order to ensure the viability of our family farms for the future, it is critical that farmers are able to teach their children how to perform agricultural work safely and responsibly. The proposed regulations preserve that ability.”
The comment period for these proposed regulations ended Dec. 1. The Department is currently reviewing comments. Photos by Héctor Navejas, Vida en el Valle, and Michael McCollum, The Record.
Meet Manuel Jiménez. He received The California Wellness Foundation’s 2011 California Peace Prize Nov. 17ay, in recognition of the youth engagement work he and his wife, Olga, do through the non-profit organization, Woodlake Pride.
Manuel and Olga – with the assistance of Woodlake youth and other community volunteers – maintain a 13-acre garden in the Tulare County community. It is truly the most amazing garden I’ve ever seen. They have 150 varieties of roses, 70 varieties of grapes, 12 varieties of blueberries, peach, plum and nectarine orchards and, maybe most shocking, rows of tropical and exotic plants like bananas, mangoes, pineapples and guavas.
As I walked through the one-mile-long garden yesterday, it was at first hard for me to understand how such an amazing garden could also double as a youth violence prevention program. But once I saw Manuel interacting with local youth – and opening their eyes to the wonders of agriculture, and the world – I glimpsed the power of the program.
I watched as Manuel unpeeled ears of heirloom corn and showed their beautiful colors – mix-matched purple, yellow, and red kernels – to 10-year-old Roman Ramírez and 8-year-old Estevan Saucedo.
“It’s the same kind of corn, but it varies from color to color,” explained Manuel, a former farmworker turned agriculture expert. “It’s all the same seeds – just like kids!”
As we walked through the garden, Manuel encouraged the kids (and lucky me!) to smell and taste everything – from apples and grapes, to pomegranates and jujubes.
“These are some of the smallest tangerines in the world, kids,” he said, as he unpeeled the fruit, and doled out mini slices.
Manuel appears so comfortable in his garden – but looked uneasy when asked about winning the Peace Prize, which comes with a cash award of $25,000. Finally, he said he was glad the kids would earn recognition for their hard work in the garden.
“The manpower behind this is actually kid power,” he said.
Read more about Manuel and Olga Jiménez in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle. To learn more about Woodlake Pride, check out this video: