CIRS Blog about Rural California

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In November 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo spoke with Larry Laverentz, a program manager with the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), about his efforts to educate and support refugee farmers in the United States.

Larry has been involved in agriculture for most of his life, from growing up on a cattle farm to working as an agriculture volunteer in Vietnam for International Voluntary Services. His experiences, including earning a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Pittsburgh, have enabled him to run programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and prepared him for his current position at RAPP.

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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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Filmmaker and photographer U. Roberto Romano wrote an op-ed piece for the website Media Voices for Children for the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, 2012.

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There are many issues related to California’s Central Valley that have been in the news recently. Topics such as social justice, farmworker health and labor conditions, immigration and its role in labor fluctuations/shortages, how pesticides are affecting drainwater and the health of people and animals living in the Valley and the ability of lawmakers to shift the future of agriculture in the country. This post is a collection of these issues. Hopefully this will be an opportunity to learn more about a topic you were unaware of, or a chance to learn more about issues currently influencing the region.

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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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Last week, two elderly farmworkers took the brave and very unusual step of suing their employer, an onion grower in the Coachella Valley, for violating the few labor laws that protect farmworkers. The two men were regularly paid less than the minimum wage, required by California law, never paid overtime, and not given protective equipment, said Megan Beaman, the attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance who filed the suit on their behalf.

Such practices are common in our nation’s fields. Since many farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, and afraid to speak up, the violations go unreported. As Tracie McMillan writes in her new book, The American Way of Eating (for which she worked undercover in produce fields, two Wal-Marts, and an Applebee’s), even if a company is caught adjusting a worker’s actual hours downward, so that it looks like they paid her minimum wage instead of a much lower piece rate, the fine is around $350. Tracie herself lost out on about $500 for one month of picking. Growers thus have a strong economic incentive to cheat workers.

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In the early 1970s, Geraldine Bardin chose to sell her family farm to an upstart community development corporation. She lit a spark that has provided nearly 40 years of educational and economic development impacts for farmworker families in the Salinas Valley. Over the years, cooperative development programs evolved into a small farm business incubator primarily serving farmworkers.

The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) is on a long-term trajectory to build upon its unique assets for community development. The model has been popular. Dozens of owner-operated organic farms have been launched and sustained. In recent years, organizations nationwide, inspired by the farm incubator, have called, visited, attended workshops, webinars and farm walks, to learn from ALBA’s work.

What ALBA discovered in this process, is that the more we helped others, the more the organization learned about itself. Inquiries from visitors and partners have informed our perspectives and strategies. In my work as development director, securing grants and contracts while helping develop ALBA’s economic engine, I’ve long operated by a core truism: the key to successful fundraising is to do good work. “Good work is rewarded,” stated Don Ralston, an early mentor, among a compelling collection of short essays on lessons learned by the Center for Rural Affairs. No doubt the greatest lessons at ALBA arise from working with and learning from aspiring and beginning farmers.

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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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California is at the leading edge of demographic change in the United States, as the state’s cities, suburbs, and rural towns are inhabited by millions of foreign-born, and their children, who now account for half of California’s population. Many of these groups have been around for generations and have influenced California’s culture—from its arts and politics to its customs and cuisine. Yet, these same groups are often scapegoated when it comes to the state’s sluggish economy, overburdened hospitals, or underperforming schools. The numbers, however, do not tell the full story of how these Californians are shaping the physical and cultural landscape of the state.

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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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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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There is a contradiction of US interests opposing child labor in the international context while allowing agricultural exceptionalism to undermine child labor protections here in the US. Agriculture is the largest employer of children worldwide.  According to the UNFAO, “Poverty and child labor interact in a vicious cycle and are mutually reinforcing. In rural areas, there is need to fight poverty and hunger in order to fight child labor.”

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Photo from Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs

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By Gail Wadsworth and Vallerye Mosquera

With funding from University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, CIRS is partnering with Dr. Michael Rios and Vallerye Mosquera from UC, Davis, and Luis Magaña from the Organizacion de Trabajadores Agricolas de California, to complete a community-based risk assessment tool for heat stress.  This tool is unique in that it is focusing on the risk of heat stress to farmworkers within their communities.  In other words:  off the farm.

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The Salinas Valley, in Monterey County, with dark, rich soils highlighted by contrasting rows of greens invokes a picture perfect image of California agriculture. It has been nicknamed "the salad bowl of the United States," and grows an abundance of fresh greens and fruit. Despite this seeming abundance, the Salinas Valley is not a stranger to poverty and hunger. 

Monterey County is the third highest grossing agricultural crop producing county in the US, with sales of more than $4 billion in 2010. Despite this agricultural bounty, Monterey County has the highest rate of adults in food insecure households out of all California counties, with a ranking of 58th in the state. There are approximately 51,000 individuals, or 49% of adults, in this county with incomes lower than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level who are food insecure.

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Danielle Boule, George Hubert, Anna Jensen, Alannah Kull, Julia Van Soelen Kim, Courtney Marshall, Kelsey Meagher and Thea Rittenhouse


This report was prepared by a team of graduate students at UC Davis in the spring of 2011 for the Yolo Ag and Food Alliance (AFA). The objective was to examine the plausibility of creating a food hub in Yolo and Solano Counties. To achieve this, the UC Davis research team explored recent trends in food hubs across the country and conducted a food system assessment of the two counties to provide a context for how and whether a food hub might be situated.

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The following excerpts are from Chapter Nine of the new book: Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System, edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of Food First.  The chapter from which these sections were taken is the result of an in-depth interview with Lucas Benítez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  The entire book examines the power of people to transform our food systems.  It argues that the global food movement is as creative and powerful as it is diverse and widespread.  Twenty-one authors from across the globe come together in this book to examine strategies for uniting efforts to create a powerful “movement of movements.”  The goal of their work is to bring healthy, affordable food to the world’s population that neither harms people nor planet. The authors address the corporatization of our food regime and offer practical and political approaches to change that are committed to democracy, justice, sustainability and food sovereignty. In short, this book is a roadmap to a brighter food future drawn by some of the most visionary activists on the planet.

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