CIRS Blog about Rural California

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Interviews with female farm workers were conducted by Vallerye Mosquera and Luis Magana in 2011. The stories below were excerpted from three of these interviews and edited by Gail Wadsworth for posting here.

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California Institute for Rural Studies organized a small group session at the “Strengthening Regional Food Systems” conference recently held at University of California, Davis.  This conference was organized to discuss how policy changes and actions by the private sector and other stakeholders can address impediments to the creation of strong regional food systems and to support innovative initiatives currently underway at the local, regional, and national levels. The meeting was also intended to build stronger partnerships among key actors working on various aspects of regional food systems.  The meeting was organized and hosted by AGree.

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In most jobs, if you have to spend even part of your workday exerting yourself under the hot summer sun, you’re likely to have drinking water nearby. And, if you don’t, you probably won’t be penalized for going to find some. But for many farmworkers in California, the largest agricultural producer in the country, the freedom to hydrate isn’t always so straightforward.

Even as temperatures climb above 90 degrees F, many of the state’s 400,000 farmworkers don’t have access to shade; or the water station is too far from where they are picking a crop, and they have to put off getting a drink. And since farmworkers are so frequently paid on a piece-rate basis rather than hourly, there’s strong incentive to put off that drink, if available at all, for as long as possible.

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The poverty of the Central Valley of California and the abundance of the region’s agriculture is a conundrum. Even though there has been a decrease in community-based access to healthy food, and a rise in chronic disease in the heartland of the state of California, and the nation, we are beginning to see people and agriculture coming together for the good of both.

The exciting change arising in the Central Valley, honoring our agricultural roots and reinventing our regional economy, has been led by the smart growth investments of Smart Valley Places, with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation. These buds of change are blossoming into a new triple-bottom-line Central Valley economy that honors the environment, equity and economics. Environmentalists, supporters of the organic movement, and advocates for social justice, are not the only ones talking the regional food system talk anymore. The Fresno Business Council, the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley and regional cities are choosing smart growth and healthy communities and realizing that the Central Valley, a place with the capacity to feed the nation, can also feed our region. Institutions (such as schools, hospitals and city and county governments) are looking at their ability to access healthier, affordable local food, and the ability for local purchasing to drive their economies home.

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There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting either individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or workplace conditions (e.g., providing shade and regular break periods). Yet, few heat stress-specific health plans take into consideration the conditions of the built and natural environment that farmworkers are returning to at the end of a long day in the fields.

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For decades, the rural housing program has been a mainstay of national and state efforts to improve the living conditions of low-income people in the U.S. At the federal level, Congress adopted a series of initiatives during the 1930s to stabilize rural families on family farms and rehouse the Depression-era rural poor, which laid the groundwork for a national rural housing program. At the state level, since the mid-1970s, the state of California has operated programs targeted specifically to small towns and rural communities and amelioration of the dismal living conditions of farm workers and Native Americans.

At the forefront of these efforts in California has been a strong network of community-based, nonprofit and public organizations and agencies located throughout the state and delivering a variety of housing services. These services include: acquisition, rehabilitation, construction, and operation of rental housing for low-income families, the elderly and disabled, homeless, and farm workers; construction supervision and loan packaging for families participating in owner-build programs; rehabilitation and retrofits of existing owner-occupied homes; installation of sewer, water, and other infrastructure improvements; provision of supportive services; and foreclosure prevention intervention, homeownership counseling, financial literacy training, and asset-building. These services have been funded by an array of federal, state, and local government housing and community development programs, lending institutions, such as banks and nonprofit financial intermediaries, private investors, and others.

The California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) was created in 1976 to represent the interests of this network of rural affordable housing providers and their clients and ensure continuing funding and supportive land use and planning laws. CCRH is the oldest statewide affordable housing coalition in the U.S. Our members include some of the oldest nonprofit housing development organizations in the country, groups that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to provide decent and affordable homes for California farm workers and other rural poor. They include the largest producers of mutual self-help housing in the country, a precursor of Habitat for Humanity. They also include some of the largest operators of farm labor housing for permanent and migrant workers.

It is this highly successful network of sophisticated, mission-driven, rural housing providers that is currently seriously threatened by shrinking funding resources. The threats are manifold. But, with the threats come several new opportunities.

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This posting is reproduced from the Stockton Record dated February 24, 2012

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Bankruptcy for Vallejo was a messy, demoralizing ordeal that saw an exodus of city employees and left residents without enough fire fighters and police officers to protect them.

But it penciled out financially, said Deborah Lauchner, Vallejo's financial director for the last 10 months.

"With bankruptcy, everything we had got studied, reviewed, torn apart and ripped open," Lauchner said Thursday. "We didn't really have a lot of options. We were going to run out of cash."

Stockton city officials are expected Tuesday to consider taking the first step down the road of bankruptcy.

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In order to develop a vision and strategic plan for improved farm labor conditions in California, Roots of Change and The California Endowment funded a collaborative effort to obtain direct feedback from agricultural workers and growers to develop a vision for more sustainable farmlabor conditions in California and to identify short- and long-term strategies for achieving that vision. Published in 2007, the results of that study still resonate.

Five grassroots organizations with diverse and longstanding ties to the agricultural community –California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, California Institute for Rural Studies, CommunityAlliance with Family Farmers, the Farmworker Institute for Education and LeadershipDevelopment and Ag Innovations Network – convened a series of meetings including growers and agricultural workers in five of California’s principal agricultural regions: Monterey, Yolo, Merced,Tulare and Ventura Counties.

The resulting report presents a synthesis of the vision and strategies for promoting a more sustainable farm labor system in California, as put forth by the participants.

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California’s San Joaquin Valley is a place of contradictions. It has some of the most productive and wealth-generating agricultural lands on the planet, but many of the people who live in this region live in poverty, confront environmental contamination, and face serious health risks. Despite efforts to alleviate these problems, the region’s poor air and water quality, concentrated poverty, and uneven access to educational and other opportunities continue to afflict the Valley. Additionally, sustainability of the Valley’s economy is increasingly dependent on the health and well-being of the all of the region’s residents across its diverse rural and urban communities.

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