2011′s top community health issues

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

In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.

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.

This winter, I reported on the trend of schools using innovative methods to ensure students eat breakfast.

 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.

A sizeable portion of that money has been funneled into the medically underserved San Joaquín Valley. It’s hard to keep track of all the money coming into the Valley, but I’ve started tracking it in this blog post.

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.

From the archives:

File photos by Rebecca Plevin and Daniel Cásarez.

Day 2 of the #SowChange tour

On Day Two of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Sowing Change 2010 tour, we began in Visalia and visited Seville, Matheny Tract, Lamont and Weedpatch. Read more about the tour, and about Day One of the tour.

  • Stop 1: Seville

“This shouldn’t be happening here in California and the United States – this is something that happens in a third-world country,” Seville resident Becky Quintana said Thursday morning, as she told the Sowing Change tour participants about the undrinkable water in her tiny Tulare County community.

Seville’s water is contaminated with nitrates and therefore unsafe to drink, Quintana said. The community’s water infrastructure is old and dilapidated. Sometimes the water goes out for days, and sometimes sand comes through the shower and toilet.

Still, Seville residents pay $60 each month for water they can’t drink, she said, and an additional $40 or $50 for drinking water.

Quintana, a local school board member, took us to Stone Corral Elementary School, where the students can’t drink out of the faucets. The school has set up water jugs in every classroom, and outside in the schoolyard.

Quintana is a member of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, which fights for access to clean water through organizing, education, and advocacy.

“If you drink water, you’re a potential ally for change,” Susana De Anda, co-director of the water center, told the tour participants.  “We need water t0 live – we have to respect that life source.”

  • Stop 3: Lamont and Weedpatch

So often, people complain there is nothing for young people to do in the Valley’s rural communities. It’s when youth have nothing better to do that they get into trouble.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, brought up this issue during a discussion about prison reform. She said Latino youth would be much better off working in the vineyards then selling drugs in the streets.

We saw an awesome example of the power of active and engaged youth during our visit to Lamont. Camila Chávez, executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, showed us a mural that youth have created, with the help of a local artist.

Not only does the mural brighten up the streets of the community, which is home to 13,296 people, 88.9 percent of who are Latino, it also prevents other people from tagging the wall with graffiti.

The mural is just one aspect of the great work the Dolores Huerta Foundation in the Kern County communities of Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch, and the Tulare County communities of Cutler-Orosi, Woodlake and Lindsay, to get disenfranchised people involved in civic participation. Along with the mural, the foundation’s community organizing work has also resulted in a Boys and Girls club, a pool, sidewalks, and stop signs.

To read my tweets from the Sowing Change tour, click here. Follow me on Twitter at @HarvestHealth.