CIRS Blog about Rural California

Food Justice, Rural Planning and Poverty

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This article is adapted from a presentation on Food Justice given to the American Planning Association California Chapter meeting in Visalia, CA in 2013.

When addressing food justice, there are several issues farm workers deal with. The two to be discussed here are: access to food and cost of food. When addressing planning issues for rural regions in the context of food justice, we need to review what the barriers are to farm worker justice in the built environment and develop ideas for improvement.

•    Where do laborers work and where do they live? 
•    How does this affect housing, transportation and food access?
•    How do we balance farmland preservation and affordable housing for workers?
•    What does transit oriented development mean in creation of affordable and accessible transport in rural regions?

In 2007, CIRS completed a study in Fresno of farm worker food security. We found that 45% of the workers interviewed in the most productive agricultural county in the US, are food insecure. We conducted a similar study in the Salinas Valley (America’s Salad Bowl) and found a staggering 66% of workers interviewed were food insecure.

“The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing ‘when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.' Commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences.”   

There is a lack of information on farm workers nationally and in California. But we do know that farm workers live in cities and in unincorporated rural regions of California. The majority live in private market housing. Workers living in agricultural regions of California, often end work and go home to substandard living conditions. Wherever they choose to live, about half of farm worker households are considered “crowded”  by HUD standards. This is 10 times the national average. In addition to being crowded, frequently housing in rural regions lacks amenities most of us take for granted, like electricity, potable water and waste disposal. Looking at just unincorporated agricultural regions of the state, residents experience a lack of safe neighborhoods, paved roads or sidewalks, parks for themselves or their families. There is, in fact, a lack of resources overall including health care facilities, emergency services, schools and grocery stores. Exacerbating a local lack of resources is the lack of public transportation. So, workers living in remote regions find themselves isolated and unable to get to places where they can purchase healthy foods. Farm workers own cars at low rates, (39% drive their own cars) and rural regions do not have reliable public transportation. That means that farm workers often ride with others and may be subject to high and inconsistent charges, dangerous driving, and unreliable and unsafe vehicles. Workers are challenged to get to work and are also challenged to get to necessary resources. This lack of mobility is severe in many locations.

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In addition to considering physical access to food, it is also important to look at economic access. American households spend on average $151 a week on food, about 6 percent of their income. A farm worker’s annual salary is around $13,800 on average. If we multiply the average cost Americans spend by 52 weeks that equals a cost for food of $7,952 a year. That’s 58 percent of farm worker’s annual income leaving $5,948 for all other expenses. Of course, this means that most farm workers will spend below the average American household for food. This rough calculation does not take into account other household sources of income for farm workers, many of whom live in multi-family and multi-generational households. The National Agricultural Workers Survey found that between the years 2007-2009, individual workers averaged $12,500 to $14,999 per year in wages but families earned an average of between $17,500 and $19,999. But by all measures, farm workers are low wage workers with little economic power in the market place.

1. Working conditions: Farm laborers make very low wages and work seasonally. In addition, labor laws exclude agricultural workers form many of the protections at work most employees expect. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country and yet workers are expected to work 10-hour days, sometimes with their children working beside them. 
2. Living conditions: As a result of poverty and lack of rural planning, farm workers live in substandard housing and have challenges feeding their families. Many live in urban areas now and commute to work but others live in isolated rural communities. In these isolated communities, resources are few and far between. Without reliable public transportation, many families are unable to get food.

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Rural infrastructure and lack of access to resources, including food, is an environmental justice issue. Lack of planning and awareness of rural populations, have created sparsely populated ghettos of poor people of color in unplanned communities. With low populations and high poverty, these regions have little power to influence county planning agencies as they update their general plans. As a result, people are denied resources simply because they live in unincorporated regions. Without planning in what may be viewed as “open space” residents end up living near environmental hazards.

The way planning and development are proceeding in California, housing and amenities are being built in urban areas (infill development) with the expectation that residents in unincorporated and unsupported communities will move into these new spaces. However, it may be useful to look at where people live and how existing small communities can be improved, while maintaining valuable agricultural land.

As development in California complies with a mandate for creating sustainable communities, it is important to refocus the concepts of this ideal and create a vision for healthy affordable housing, rural transit development and access to resources for all rural residents. Housing elements need to consider all sectors of rural society. Smart growth advocates need to consider preserving farmland as well as farm worker communities. Isolated rural residents need access to low cost transportation to work and distant resources. Infrastructure needs to be extended to low population, poor communities, focusing on food access and health. Every community deserves potable water, waste water systems, paved roads, sidewalks, streetlights and parks as well as healthy food access. If the current model of sustainable development does not fit existing communities, it is incumbent upon planners and developers to envision innovative solutions to the current paradigm.

[i] US Department of Labor. National Agriculture Workers Survey. United States. Department of Labor. 2010. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2007-2009.

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