Live in a food swamp?

One morning, when I was reporting from Kettleman City, I took the video below.

Actually, the video was an accident, but the short clip and audio thoroughly depict the lack of healthy food options near the unincorporated Kings County community.

A recent health policy brief published by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research analyzed the retail food environments in counties across the state, and found that many of them might look like this stretch of Highway 41.

According to the report, about 75 percent of California teens live and go to school in less health food environments, where fast food restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores, dollars stores and pharmacies outnumber grocery stores, warehouse stores and produce vendors.

In fact, the food environments in the Valley are some of the worst in the state.

For example, in Stanislaus County, there are more than 9 times as many fast food restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores, and dollars stores, as there are grocery stores and produce vendors. In Tulare County, there are 8.6 times more unhealthy food retail options than healthy options; in Fresno, there are 8 times more unhealthy retail options than healthy ones.


This oversaturation of unhealthy food options has created a predictable situation: According to the report, soda consumption is highest among teens with the least healthy food environments near their homes and schools. Teens who live amidst the most unhealthy food options also have the highest fast food consumption.

And consumption of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages, and fast food, is linked to greater caloric intake. Eating and drinking these sugary sodas and fast food may have contributed to the rise in obesity rates, according to the report.

What sorts of solutions are available for communities like Kettleman City, pictured at the top of this page, or Pixley, in Tulare County, picture in the center?

The report recommends increasing the presence of farmer’s markets, food cooperatives, and community gardens; encouraging the development of farm-to-institution programs; developing and providing incentives to attract grocery stores and improve foods available in existing stores; and consider zoning and land use policies that improve food environments near schools and in underserved communities.

These changes are necessary to ensure our communities don’t remain “food swamps,” where there is so much food around, but nothing healthy or nourishing to eat.

Obesity, previously on Harvesting Health:

VIDEO: Farmworkers, activists protest use of pesticide

UPDATE: The story ‘Protest focuses on use of controversial pesticide’ ran in the June 8, 2011 edition of Vida en el Valle.

On May 19, the Fresno Bee reported that the controversial pesticide methyl iodide had been injected into the soil on a one-acre chile pepper farm near Sanger.

That application represented the first time the pesticide has been used in California since it was approved by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation in December, according to the Bee.

Today, farmworkers and environmental activists protested the use of methyl iodide outside of the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office. They called on the commissioner to prevent further use of the chemical.

Methyl iodide is, “too toxic for use in this state,” said Paul Towers, state director of Pesticide Watch and Pesticide Watch Education Fund. He said methyl iodide has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and groundwater contamination.

(Click here to read KQED radio’s excellent ongoing coverage of the controversy over methyl iodide.)

At the end of the protest, the approximately 25 participants approached deputy agricultural commissioner Les Wright and questioned him about the use of methyl iodide in Fresno County.

“At this point in time, it’s a legal product to be used in the state of California, and as long as all requirements are met, an application can occur anywhere in the state,” Wright told the group. When the pesticide was approved, it came with strict restrictions that include buffer zones, special training and tarps to contain the chemical, according to the Bee.

In the video below, Wright explains to the group why the local grower was allowed to use the pesticide, and why the county will continue to allow its use, when legally appropriate, despite activists’ pleas.

Read more about methyl iodide and this protest in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

Homelessness: A year-round problem in Fresno County

I’m currently collaborating on a story about homeless youth in Fresno County. As part of my research, I interviewed last week three homeless women who are living at the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter in downtown Fresno.

Anissa Gutierrez, a mother of three, told me she lost her apartment days before Christmas. There were no available rooms at the shelter at that time, so she and her kids bounced through the homes of various friends and family members. Always, she said, she tried “not to wear out my welcome at anybody’s house.”

Christmas came during that period when Gutierrez and her children were homeless.

“I’m not going to lie, I made the kids stay up real late the day before so they would sleep most of the day on Christmas, so they wouldn’t even notice it was Christmas,” Gutierrez said.

“I felt so bad for them on Christmas,” she said. “They don’t know – but it made me feel awful.”

Gutierrez’s story hit me hard. But as Laura Tanner-McBrien, of Fresno Unified School District’s Department of Prevention and Intervention told me, it’s important to put that story in context: That was just one of the many days of that Gutierrez, her children, and thousands of others are homeless.

“Homelessness is a year-round thing,” said Tanner-McBrien, who manages the school district’s homeless outreach programs.

“The one thing that always surprises me is that it’s only focused upon during the holidays. We forget that come January and February, those families are still homeless and in need of services, and the children still need things.”

Fresno’s homeless count in January 2009 was 3,591, according to the Fresno Bee. Fresno Unified estimates there are about 2,400 homeless students in the school district.

Want to learn more about youth homelessness in Fresno County? I’m working on this project with Marcus Vega, a youth journalist for The kNOw Youth Media. Check out the video he produced for The kNOw about youth homelessness.

Photo  by Marcus Vega.

Something to chew on: The need for kids’ oral health care in the Valley

UPDATE: Read the full story – A dental crisishere.


When Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Stephen Schilling told me about the dramatic need for children’s oral health care in California, I was surprised, to say the least.

What about asthma or obesity?

“Epidemiologically, you will find that untreated oral health concerns are our greatest public health children’s challenge in California,” Schilling said.

That idea spurred me to investigate the need for dental care for San Joaquín Valley children, especially Latino kids.

Here are some of the statistics I’ve learned, courtesy of the organization Children Now:

  • The problem: The Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health cited tooth decay as the most common chronic childhood disease in the nation
  • Who it affects: Low-income kids are at a higher risk of suffering from dental disease.
  • The short-term impact: More than 500,000 kids in California missed one or more school days as a result of oral health problems
  • The long-term impact: Poor oral health is linked to other health problems, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and, for women, premature births.

You can read more about this serious – and under-recognized – health issue in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

For now, I encourage you to check out the videos included in the post. The videos depict the oral health curriculum at the Orange Cove Migrant Head Start.