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Going Hungry in America’s Bread Basket

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram and Ketaki Gokhale Posted: Aug 11, 2008

Editor’s Note: A small farming community near Fresno is reeling under the impact of the economic downturn and the drought. As a result hundreds are going hungry in the middle of America’s breadbasket, reports NAM health reporters Viji Sundaram and Ketaki Gokhale. Photographs by Ketaki Gokhale

MENDOTA, Calif.—Early each morning these days, the manager of Mendota Food Center on Derrick Avenue in this small community west of Fresno, boxes his aging produce, which he would normally throw away, and leaves it at the back of his store.

Within an hour, the boxes are all gone.

“It shows there’s hunger in Mendota, and people will take anything,” said Mayor Robert Silva, who manages the grocery store. Some other grocery stores are doing likewise, he said.

Mendota, whose population of 9,000 is 95 percent Hispanic, looks today like a small dilapidated town in a developing nation and not part of “America’s bread basket.” The economic downturn, state-enforced water rationing, poor rains and unemployment have all come to a head here. Now, hunger is sweeping through the community.Mendota Food Bank

Many farmers have been forced to cut back on planting. Some have even walked away from the field crops they had planted.

“Some people are abandoning their fields; they just don’t water them,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of Fresno County Farm Bureau.

According to a study commissioned by the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, water cuts could result in an $84.6 million economic loss for the region. Experts are predicting a $33.9 million loss in farm income and a loss of more than 700 jobs.

Already hundreds of immigrant farm workers have been laid off at a time of the year when employment in this agricultural community is usually at its peak.

Miria GonzalezEl Salvador-born Miria Gonzales, 56, is one of them. “This has been a tough year for us,” said Gonzalez as she walked down Quince Street in the late afternoon, with one bag of groceries tucked under her arm and another balanced on her head. Sweat beaded her face as she made her way towards her home, about half a mile away, in 110-degree heat. Groups of men stood idly outside their rundown homes, drinking soda.

“In the 11 years we’ve been in the United States, it’s never been like this,” said Gonzalez, a single mom and now an unemployed farm worker.

Her son, she said, has also joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Mendota has a 40 percent unemployment rate, the highest in Fresno County. Fresno County currently has the highest concentration of poverty in the nation.

Gonzalez’s grocery bags contained cans of diced tomatoes, grapefruit juice, pink salmon (for her pet cat), applesauce, rice, beef stew, macaroni and refried beans. She and other hard-hit farm workers have lately been picking up their food supplies from the Westside Youth Center, where volunteers hand out emergency food supplies, under a federal program that provides food once a month for 500 families in Mendota.

Although meant to help the disabled and seniors, the program nowadays caters to almost anyone who is in dire straits, noted Westside’s executive director Nancy Daniel.

“Our food giveaways are helping (the townspeople), but we need to have more of them,” observed Mayor Silva.

Others in Mendota are trying to help as well. On July 25, the city, in conjunction with the Fresno Community Food Bank, gave away boxes of meat and fresh produce to more than 500 local families.

The lack of farm work this harvest season is taking its toll on all quarters of Mendota’s economy. “In our store, you see more shoplifters—people who are desperate,” said Silva. “Normally, people shoplift medications for their children in the winter (when they are out of work). Now they’re doing it in the summertime. It’s unprecedented.”

Councilman Joseph Riofrio, owner of the Westside Grocery Store, which has been in his family for several generations, said Mendota is on its way to “becoming a ghost town.” Because people didn’t have money to spend on groceries, he had to convert his store into a DVD rental shop, and a place where Mendota residents could come to pay late utilities bills and get their electricity turned back on.

Mendota For the past 17 years, El Salvador-born Jose Moises Carnejo has had no trouble finding farm work this time of the year in the Central Valley. This year, he’s gone around to all the farms that usually give him work—to no avail. Unemployed for over a month now, he is worried his state benefits are going to run out. That would mean not being able to send money back home, where his wife, son and parents live.

As Riofrio helped him make a late payment on his PG&E account, he bemoaned the political situation in Sacramento. “We desperately need something other than ag out here,” Riofrio said. “Our politicians are out there making decisions, but they don’t come here to see the impact.”

But a few politicians have taken notice of Mendota’s woes this year. In June, after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the Central Valley because of drought conditions, California State Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, along with Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, sent a letter to the governor urging him to provide more assistance, including food, for agricultural workers suffering the economic impacts caused by the water shortage and drought.

Arambula also introduced AB 1107, which will extend through the end of the year unemployment benefits to agricultural workers who have lost their jobs because of the water shortage. The proposed bill would also raise the cap on unemployment eligibility, to make the benefit available to more people and to encourage them to find alternatives to farm work.

“It would help people earn a bit more money by taking odd jobs, and still keep their benefits,” explained Les Spahnn, Arambula’s budget consultant. “Providing people with more incentives to work is important because it keeps money circulating in the community.”

AB 1107 was approved Aug. 7 by the Senate Appropriations Committee and will next head to the Senate floor, where it would need a two-thirds vote to pass, since it’s an emergency statute. Whether the bill passes depends largely on how it is received by Senate Republicans, Spahnn said. If it passes, Mendota’s farm workers will receive anywhere between $40 to $450 a week, depending on how long they have been in the United States.

Meanwhile, town officials are bracing for longer lines at food distribution centers, starting next month, when Mendota’s single largest employer, the 42-year-old Spreckles Sugar Company, is set to shut its doors, according to Riofrio.Mendota

Miria Gonzalez is not sure whether the food she has picked up from the Westside Youth Center will tide her over until she can go and pick up more groceries from a local church also doing weekly food giveaways.

Farm worker Carnejo said that if the Central Valley water shortage continues, he might be forced to move a hundred miles east to the coastal community of Salinas, Calif. “There’s lettuce there to pick,” he said, adding: “It’s nice to go to work.”

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