CIRS Blog about Rural California

Hunger in the Fields

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 Gail Wadsworth and Lisa Kresge

“The green grass spreads right into the tent doorways and the orange trees are loaded. In the cotton fields, a few wisps of the old crop cling to the black stems. But the people who picked the cotton, and cut the peaches and apricots, who crawled all day in the rows of lettuce and beans, are hungry. The men who harvested the crops of California, the women and girls who stood all day and half the night in the canneries, are starving.”  -- John Steinbeck, 1936, Final Essays

Across the United States, farmworkers are having difficulty getting enough to eat. And they’re not alone: rural communities as a whole are poorer and less able to feed themselves than their urban counterparts. It is ironic that in regions where our food is being grown, access to food is limited and the people who grow it are unable to afford it when it is available. For farmworkers, lack of transportation, fear and other social issues increase their isolation and limit their food choices even more.  The food security movement, working to increase access for communities at risk of hunger, tends to overlook rural people and especially those who work in the fields.


Rural Food Deserts

Rural areas frequently exhibit limited food access.  Despite being regions of food production, many of these areas do not have retail outlets where food can be purchased. Food deserts are common in rural America, defined as particular geographic areas where there is insufficient quantity and quality of food or where food prices are systematically higher than in other regions.

According to one source, over 800 counties in the U.S. are considered to have low food access with the largest concentration in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions.  In a survey of 1,500 residents in four non-metro counties in Iowa, most lived 20 miles or more from a major food retailer. All of these counties had four or fewer grocery stores.  About 10,000 farmworkers live in Iowa year round.  And while food insecurity rates for the state in 2002 were quite low (6.5 percent) 37 percent of households in poverty and 21 percent of Hispanic households were food insecure.

Access to food is a critical factor in rural California as well. One study, compiling data from county-level food assessments shows that a lack of fresh food options, few retail locations and lack of transportation in rural areas all create barriers to accessing healthy foods. According to the same study, almost 60 percent of rural Californians live more than three miles from a grocery store and only nine percent live within a mile. When there is also a lack of transportation choices, food insecurity increases.

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Rural Poverty

Overall U.S. poverty rates are higher for minorities than for non-Hispanic Whites. This racial disparity is even more marked when reviewing rural poverty rates and other dimensions of well-being, such as education and depth of poverty. Rural counties make up the large majority (340 of 386) of counties with persistent poverty. And the more rural an area is, the poorer it is. Poverty rates are the highest in completely rural counties. Counties with low employment rates are disproportionately located in the most rural areas. Median household income in 2002 for rural counties was $34,654 (about 25 percent less than urban counties) but, for farmworkers, household income is even lower. Rural residents have less education, limited public transportation, worse health, housing and medical care, and work more hours while getting paid less than their urban counterparts. In addition, they have fewer options for employment and higher unemployment rates.

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Farm Laborers and Hunger

Farm laborers experience both food insecurity and rural poverty at a disproportionate level.  In 2009, about 15 percent of American households weren’t getting enough food for their families. Rates of food insecurity and hunger are far greater in some of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions. The Salinas Valley, located in Monterey County, is the third highest grossing crop producing county in the nation. And Monterey has the highest proportion of food insecure households in California at almost half. But the people growing our lettuce and strawberries are likely worse off. One exploratory study found that during 2009, 66 percent of farmworkers interviewed in the Salinas Valley were food insecure.

Monterey County, although extreme, is not unique.  The few studies assessing food insecurity among farmworkers have all shown higher than average levels.  In Fresno County, the country’s most productive agricultural county, an estimated 45 percent of farmworkers are food insecure. Those who are indigenous Mexicans are at even higher risk:  a limited survey of Mixteco-speakers showed 76 percent of those interviewed were food insecure in the winter, when employment is limited and incomes lower.  Focus groups with indigenous farmworkers in the Central Valley of California, showed that these workers were being forced to make choices between food, rent and medical care during the winter months.

California is not alone when it comes to hunger among farmworkers.  North Carolina data from four studies executed between 2002 and 2004, show that among households where there is a farmworker, 49 to 71 percent are food insecure. Texas has the second highest rate in the nation of food insecurity and the second largest agricultural income. A sampling of 100 migrant and seasonal workers in Texas showed that 82 percent were food insecure.

Many workers coming to the U.S. for agricultural jobs are coming specifically to overcome hunger and diminishing opportunities at home.  They are leaving rural regions, primarily in Mexico, where they are no longer able to survive as farmers due to the impacts of global trade agreements and national policies. They find themselves working in an environment where they have less control over the production and consumption of their food.  In addition, their wages, though high by the standards of their country of origin are extremely low by U.S. standards.  According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, report (Report No. 9, March 2005) reports 30% of U.S. farmworker families had income below the Federal poverty line. In addition, the same report finds the median family income of NAWS participants was in the range of $12.500-$14,499.



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Solutions

Food insecurity is a product of the global economic system and the dynamics of domestic food production.  Yet, the agricultural base remains the best solution to rural poverty and food insecurity. There are several promising strategies aimed at addressing rural food deserts. For example, community owned grocery stores, like the Gove Community Improvement Association in Kansas, or rural distribution systems like the Oklahoma Food Cooperative or Gorge Grown Mobile Market. These are innovative solutions developed by rural communities to address the food deserts in which they live.

Despite activities in rural regions to increase food access using strategies like these, community-based actions are not enough in regions where community members are widely dispersed and many members remain hidden from view. These community actions need to be met with increased support from private and public funding sources aimed at developing these community resources and safety nets.

Federal policies need to be enacted that favor the most marginalized populations by addressing rural poverty and food deserts. Specifically, policies that lead to greater allocation of public funds for rural development; rural transportation infrastructure, promotion of regional and local food systems, including improvement in the competitiveness of diversified, smaller scale producers; and access to low- or no-interest loans for rural residents. In addition, labor policies that allow for agricultural exclusion to labor laws need to be changed.

Beyond the overhaul of federal policies, foundations supporting community-based organizations who are working to solve these issues in rural regions need to step up to the challenge as well.  A recent study of the top 1,000 grant making foundations showed that despite housing 17 percent of the U.S. population and 28 percent of those in poverty, annual giving from these foundations to rural communities was only 6.8 percent of their total giving. The capacity of rural communities to access resources and work collaboratively needs to be improved.  The government should maintain the social safety net in rural regions while increasing outreach, especially with regard to food stamp utilization, to reduce food insecurity.  Rural regions rely disproportionately on food stamps and these, along with school lunch programs help to reduce rural food insecurity.

The discussion of rural poverty, the farmworker population and inequality of food access in food producing regions must come to the forefront of the community food security movement.  Collaborative efforts for change require a common understanding and focus on issues of poverty and social justice.

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