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.
If the state legislature approves cuts to CalWORKS proposed in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-13 budget, low-income families could lose the child care they depend on. That could cause parents to quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, and sink back into poverty.
And it could cause Sharon Esquivel – who has transformed her southeast Fresno home into a colorful day care, complete with a cozy classroom (pictured below,) a small library, and a backyard garden (pictured above) – to be out of a job.
Under the governor’s proposal, “the folks who really need help, and the folks who are struggling to get out of poverty, are left behind,” said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It’s a much higher mountain to climb out of poverty under this proposal than current law.”
The proposed cuts are a personal blow to Esquivel, who grew up in Fresno as one of 14 kids born to a poor, single mom. She goes above and beyond to provide children in her day care with educational opportunities, entertainment, and food, even though she is paid just $29 per child, per day.
“When I see these little children with their beat-up little shoes and their moms bringing them in with their little second-hand sweaters and their second-hand shorts, I recognize it, I know it,” she said. “It is deep for me to do all these things for them because I didn’t have it, and I wanted it.”
As Esquivel waits for the state legislature to determine which CalWORKS cuts will go through, her only option is to keep doing what she has excelled at for 21 years: Caring for children.
“We’re just grinning and bearing it,” she said of the proposed cuts.
More from Harvesting Health on the 2012-13 budget:
On Tuesday, Fresno area residents gathered in downtown Fresno to protest proposed budget cuts to health and human services. (Read this Vida article to learn more about how the cuts will impact low-income communities of color.)
Here’s a look at the people who would be impacted by the cuts proposed in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-2013 budget:
SHARON ESQUIVEL In-home day care provider Major concern: Proposed cuts to CalWORKS include the elimination of about 61,000 child care slots for families that have transitioned from welfare to work.
“We have a beautiful flag with a bear on it that flies over the State of California. (The children, the handicapped and the elderly) are not the fleas on the back of that bear that flies over California so beautifully. Stop making them feel that they are less than everybody else – everybody deserves a chance.”
ANA JONES Seasonal IRS employee Major concern: If the proposed cuts go through, she and other Stage 3 CalWORKS recipients would lose their child care.
“I’m a single mom of two boys, I was on welfare for about 6 years and during those six years, I was able to earn job at the IRS… Without childcare, bottom line, I will not be able to work – I will not be able to provide for my kids.”
JOHN WILKINS 31-year recipient, In-Home Supportive Services Major concern: IHSS to the elderly and disabled would be cut by $292 million as hours are cut 20 percent and eligibility would be eliminated for recipients with other family members living at home.
“Doctors didn’t expect me to live past age 30, and I give full and complete credit to this program for giving me the value and quality of life it has taken for me to live independently.”
RICHARD YANES Executive director, Fresno Metro Ministry Major concern: Breadth of cuts to health and human services
“What we’re looking for is fairness, is equitability, and a fair budget. What we have is wealth redistribution of the worst sort – we have looters in this country who are redistributing the wealth, in a way that we don’t agree with.”
Well friends, another year of investigating community health in the San Joaquín Valley is coming to an end.
Below are my picks for the Valley’s top five community health issues/trends of 2011. What did I miss? What issues were important to you this year? And what would you like to read more about next year? Let me know in the comments section below!
1. San Joaquín Valley’s contaminated drinking water grabs international attention
The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.
Her report, presented to the U.N. this fall, did not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.
“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she wrote. The agricultural San Joaquín Valley is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”
Water advocates hoped the U.N. report would shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos, and help them advocate for the Human Right to Water bill package, which was making its way through Sacramento.
It all must have made an impact. In October, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill package, which is intended to ensure that communities across the state have access to clean, affordable drinking water.
2. Poverty increases
Though the great recession officially ended in June 2009, Latinos across the country continued to struggle with poverty and food insecurity in 2010, government statistics showed this fall.
Nationwide, 26.6 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in poverty in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites was 13 percent in 2010.
California’s overall poverty rate — at 16.3 percent in 2010, up from 15.3 percent in 2009 — was above the country’s overall rate, 15.1 percent in 2010. In Fresno County, 20.9 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the most recent data available.
In the Valley, the increase in poverty was evident at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, where more and more families were seeking shelter after they had lost their job or home.
It was evident outside of Catholic Charities in September, when a husband and wife – both with degrees in social work – waited in line to receive food from the Neighborhood Market food distribution. (After I blogged about this couple, the woman was offered a job at Catholic Charities.)
And it was evident in November, when possibly hundreds of people were evicted from downtown Fresno’s homeless encampments. Two of the people I interviewed had landed on the streets when the money they made working in the San Joaquín Valley fields and packinghouses no longer covered the rent.
3. School food tops the menu
As child obesity – as well as poverty and food insecurity – has increased across the state and nation, more attention has been focused on the meals students eat while at school.
Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.
And thanks, in part, to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, schools began removing chocolate and strawberry milks from their school cafeterias. Los Angeles Unified School District last week became the largest school district in the nation to ban chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus, and Valley districts – including Earlimart, in Tulare Count – have also stopped offering flavored milk.
Is all this attention on school nutrition making an impact? I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but a recent Los Angeles Times story reports that L.A. Unified’s “trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.”
4. Health reform provides benefits – and challenges
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014, but the San Joaquín Valley is already experiencing ups and down from the law.
The Affordable Care Act designates funds to support the ongoing operations of community health clinics, create new health center sites in medically underserved areas, and expand preventative and primary health care services at health center sites, according to HealthCare.gov.
But preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also proven challenging for Fresno County. In September, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to withdraw the county’s Low Income Health Program application from consideration by the State Department of Health Care Services.
With the vote, the county became the first in the state to withdraw its application for the program, which was intended to help counties prepare for the expansion of Medi-Cal that will come with the implementation of the federal health care law in 2014.
5. Residents, experts approach environmental justice seriously and scientifically
As I reported this summer, people of color have become the state’s strongest environmentalists, since they are most burdened by environmental pollution, and the resulting health problems.
So this fall, it was neat to hear about two projects that are comprehensively measuring just how badly residents are burdened by pollution.
In Arvin – a farmworker community that has been considered one of the smoggiest cities in the nation – residents have kicked off a two-year, community-led air monitoring project, or “bucket brigade.”
And UC Davis researchers just released a three-year study that analyzes every census block in the eight-county Valley, and assigns each one a numerical score for environmental hazards, based on the most recent data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another score for its social vulnerability, based on recent U.S. Census data.
In the new year, both projects could be great tools for communities advocating for health and environmental justices.
Well, I told him, it’s a long story, and it goes something like this:
Earlier this year, I partnered with Marcus Vega, who was a youth reporter with The kNOw Youth Media, to work on a series of stories about youth homelessness. As we worked on the stories, I also learned more about Marcus’ personal experiences with youth homelessness. (Read his first-person piece about this reporting project and his own experiences with homelessness.)
As I wrote in a blog post about the reporting project, working with Marcus proved to me that education truly is a path out of poverty – but that it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve, when they are just focused on day-to-day survival.
But it wasn’t until I covered the first hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color that I truly understood how many young men in our community are at risk of falling through the cracks.
During the hearing, experts testified about the gross disparities in health, education, incarceration and violence impacting boys and young men of color. If these disparities are not improved, there could be major ramifications for the future of the state – where 70 percent of those under 18 are children of color – and for the country – where half of all residents are projected to be people of color by 2040.
It would have been a depressing hearing, if it were not for the handful of young men who told their own stories of struggle – and eventual success. Hearing those testimonies made me want to connect with a young man in the Valley and follow him, to see what it would take for him to succeed.
And that’s how I found myself at the YouthBuild Charter School, interviewing Olea, a 24-year-old father of five who has embraced the opportunity to achieve his high school degree as if his life depended on it.
“I have been shot twice, I have been stabbed twice, but I’m still here,” he said. “I see that as a sign just letting me know that I’m wanted here for some reason — because if not, I would have been gone a long time ago.”
I believe in young men like Vega and Olea. And so does Dr. Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity within the UC Davis School of Education, who described her own belief in youth during a conference at UC Merced last week.
“Education is a gateway to survival – but marginalization is man-made, intergenerational and systemic,” she said. “All great movements begin in the heart of a young person.”
‘This is paradise, I’m tellin’ ya,’ read a framed movie poster, propped up on a chair outside of a tent on H Street, under the Highway 41 overpass. But when Mondo, a 26-year-old homeless man, emerged from the tent, his emotions betrayed the sentiment of the famous line from the 1983 movie ‘Scarface.’
“Apparently we are not allowed to live right here,” said Mondo, who wore a Fresno State Bulldogs hat and slippers. “They are kicking us all out – I don’t know why.”
As he spoke, the McLane High School graduate loaded up a shopping cart with his few possessions: clothes that are still in good shape, underwear, some hats, a couple blankets, and the recyclable copper he sells for spare change.
One hundred-some people – including Mondo – are being forced out of their only homes this week as part of a City of Fresno effort to clear the downtown homeless encampments. City officials said the homeless would be connected with social services, but so far, Mondo had heard nothing.
“No housing, no nothing, no direction – nothing,” he said.
As we spoke a California Highway Patrol officer approached us, and informed Mondo he could store his valuables for up to 90 days. The officer offered Mondo a clear plastic bag for his possessions.
But Mondo said he was taking his important possessions with him to breakfast at the Poverello House, which began at 8:30 a.m.
“I want to go make it for breakfast – I’m hungry,” Mondo said. “Come on Hudini, let’s go,” he said to a small, tan-colored dog that had taken up refuge in his tent. “Come on, loco.”
He began pushing his cart – piled high with his possessions, with the ‘Scarface’ poster teetering on top – down H Street. Then the poster fell off his cart, the glass shattering across the street.
Read more about the city’s efforts to clear out the homeless encampments in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle. Photos by Daniel Cásarez.
The report takes 233 neighborhoods and counties in the state, and analyzes them by life expectancy, access to knowledge, and median personal earnings. It shows disparities throughout the state, but also within regions like the Valley.
To many residents, grassroots advocates, and reporters like me, this type of information, sadly, is no longer shocking. But it certainly underscores the need for continued collaboration, advocacy, and – in my case – reporting.