The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Food Basket of America – Hungry People, No Water

The Food Basket of America – Hungry People, No Water

The Food Journal

February 18, 2014

San Joaquin Valley Produce and Food Safety

Fresno County’s top ten crops are grapes, almonds, poultry, milk, tomatoes, cattle, cotton, pistachios, peaches and plums.  In 2012, according to the Fresno County Farm Bureau, grapes became the first billion dollar crop for Fresno. Fresno County produces more than 400 commercial crops annually, totaling over $6.88 billion in gross production value in 2011. Now the farmers are struggling without any water and are leaving half their acreage fallow.  

“Lettuce is one of the first crops to go due to lack of water supply so there will be a spike in the price of lettuce in the spring,” explains Clark Brothers Farming partner and Westlands Water Board of Director Sarah Woolf, a mother of four whose husband also owns a tomato processing plant. Without enough tomatoes farmed this season, food safety comes more into question. “Heinz or makers of tomato juice or salsa will have to source their product from someone else. Fresno County produces something like 90% of the tomatoes in California.  California leads the world in the production of processing tomatoes. Companies that need to meet supply and demand for ketchup or spaghetti sauce will go outside the US. That is scary for moms like me, to think our ketchup could come from China.” Interview with Clark Brothers Farming Partner & Westlands Water District Board of Director Sarah Woolf

The Human Face to the Water Crisis

In Fresno, nearly one half of the residents are Hispanic with a large percentage from Mexico. El Agua es Asunto De Todos (Water is Everyone’s Business) is a grass roots organization in the Central Valley formed in the devastation of the 2009 drought to raise awareness of the impacts of the water shortages on the Hispanic community. People losing their jobs, cars, houses, college dreams… and standing in food lines asking, what am I going to do? “We can conserve as much water as we can now, but if we don’t get a reliable water source in the near future, people won’t be able to plant crops, and get loans for their farms without guarantees of a secured water source,” says volunteer Maria Gutierrez, a former Senior Vice President, Regional Director and Political Sales Director for Univision. 

While El Agua is not a political organization, Guttierez spoke about the importance of Hispanic voting power. “In California, by the end of March of this year there will be more Hispanics than white Americans. I am speaking for myself, but I believe Hispanics will have a very big impact on elections, and we don’t care about party affiliation as long as we bring water to the Central Valley.”  Interview with María Gutiérrez – Volunteer, El Agua es Asunto de Todos

Mayor Robert Silva of Mendota, CA, a town that is approximately 96% Latino with 85% of the jobs Ag-related, says in 2009 nobody was prepared or foresaw the future and now the same thing is happening again. “Normally this time of year we are 28% unemployed, but according to the Employment Development Department (EDD) we are at 34%, and it’s going to get worse. We could be at a 50% unemployment rate in the community by the summer,” says Mayor Silva.  President Obama’s visit brings hope. “In 2009, I sent a letter and received a thank you letter that the President isn’t going to make it. Now he’s coming.” Interview with Mayor Robert Silva – City of Mendota, CA

Hungry People Grow Angry

Hungry unemployed people who see no end in sight are angry and frustrated. This is witnessed most by those who feed them. Kelly Lilles of Catholic Charities in Fresno mentions the important and overlooked bi-product of the drought crisis – mental health. “The economic downturn over the last few years has significantly driven up the domestic violence rates in our county. When people lose their jobs and their income goes away, anger and frustration takes its place. Unfortunately, we do not provide mental health services on site, and Fresno County as a whole is lacking in providing these services to our community. Our volunteers and staff are dealing with an increase of challenging clients every day.”

Lilles and her Operations Director Jody Hudson remain optimistic. “We are very hopeful that we will continue to have those who are not affected by the drought support us with financial contributions so we can purchase food from the Community Food Bank. We don’t want to have to operate in fear or be reactive.  We are trying to be proactive and address this situation together as a united community.” Interview with Kelly Lilles, Executive Director & Jody Hudson – Operations Director, Catholic Charities

Andy Souza is the President and CEO of the Community Food Bank that distributes approximately 33 million pounds of food through 180 partner agencies in a fiscal year. In the 2009 drought, he learned people feared there wouldn’t be any food left when they got to the front of the food line. “In-house we’re talking about a better way to do the tactical side of the distribution. The human side is that these are people are in distress. They live very quiet simple lives, are here to work, want to work… and now their families are going hungry. We need to get folks fed physically but also remind them there is a lot of hope to get through this time and be better prepared for the next time this happens. “ 

For the Community Food Bank, lean proteins and dairy are the hardest donations to source. “This time, we are looking at ways to supplement those proteins in the food we give to families. We are working with California Emergency Food Link in Sacramento to put together the food boxes that will go right onto a family’s tables.” Interview with Andy Souza, President & CEO, Community Food Bank

What about the fish?

“We do not see it as humans OR fish, or farmers OR fish. We would like to hold out hope that there is still a way to make that OR an AND,” says Jordan Traverso, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director of Communications. “The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has the responsibility of protecting and preserving the state’s fish and wildlife resources and the habitat they depend on.” Statement from CA Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director of Communications Jordan Traverso

US Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region Area Manager Michael Jackson says the Endangered Species Act is another demand on the system that has to be addressed. “We work in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife (Delta smelt) and the National Marines Fisheries Service (salmon). The big challenge is to try to save every drop that we can while meeting any fishery requirements and water quality requirements that are put upon us. We don’t want any more water to go for a purpose than is useful. If we need to release only ten gallons for a water quality standard, we don’t want to release twenty gallons such that a substantial portion would not serve any useful purpose.” Interview with Michael Jackson, Area Manager, US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Mid Pacific Region

Gayle Holman, Public Affairs Representative for the Westlands Water District says, “You can point the finger at mother nature for the drought, but we have a system built over 50 years ago to bridge the wet and dry years that has worked; yet the Environmental Species Act requires that water which could have been used for agricultural purposes to be flushed out to the ocean. It’s a huge, huge loss.”


Agriculture USA radio reports that twenty million dollars in funds from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive’s Program will develop science-based, proven conservation techniques such as drought mitigation, irrigation efficiency, assisting watering facilities, stabilizing fallowed ground and grazing distribution. There will be disaster assistance restored by the now-passed farm bill for livestock producers devastated in the drought. Rep. Jim Costa says, ”We in California are facing a disaster that could devastate our economy and force many of my constituents out of work.”

The 2014 Water Bond was moved to the 2014 ballot and seeks to address investments in the statewide water system “not keeping pace with a growing population and changing needs. Large-scale investments are needed in areas such as water storage capacity, recycling facilities, levee improvements, flood control facilities, and water treatment plants.” (Association of California Water Agencies)

The priorities for water and escalating needs for water in California make the water policy and politics incredibly complex to navigate. Finger pointing won’t bring more water to farmers for growing crops, employment to citizens and food for their families. Other water stressed areas outside the state should examine this situation to begin the difficult conversations needed to proactively engage the issues in their watershed plans. In California, government relief, better protection against another drought in the future, and grassroots and community efforts to alleviate stress mentally and physically will be the key to survive the drought of 2014.  

Please read The Food Journal - The Problem with the Price of Water for more detailed information on the water systems in the Central Valley.