Food donations underscore drought impact


Issue Date: September 10, 2014
By Kate Campbell
Drought has created a “double whammy” of job loss and higher food prices for those who can least afford it, Kym Dildine, center, California Community Food Bank development director, told the media last week in Fresno.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Workers at Simonian Fruit Co. load donated boxes of almonds, along with fresh fruit and vegetables, on trucks bound for struggling food banks in 10 California cities.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Central Valley farmers and businesses donated and shipped about 30 tons of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts last week to help address food shortages at California food banks. A newly organized grassroots coalition, "California Water Feeds Our Communities," was joined by the California Community Food Bank, Westlands Water District, the California Water Alliance and El Agua Es Asunto De Todos to bring valley-grown produce to those in need across the state.

Fresno County farmer Bill Diedrich said the impact of fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated cropland in the San Joaquin Valley this year translates into significant economic losses for the valley's small farming communities.

"It's the people—and the communities that depend on agricultural production—that are getting hurt," Diedrich said at a news conference in Fresno to announce the donations. "For example, the schools are being hurt. If people are moving on, there's no reimbursement for (school) attendance and the children of those families who've stayed are losing out. Besides the school districts, cities and counties also are being affected and their ability to help in this crisis is reduced."

Diedrich said that when he drives through the valley's small towns, he sees workers standing around idle, "because there's so much fallowed ground there isn't the normal demand for labor. We're looking at a disaster and we're hoping for regulatory relief," noting that Congress will be considering drought-relief bills in coming weeks.

Kym Dildine with Fresno-based Community Food Bank said one in four people in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Kern and Tulare counties copes with food insecurity, a situation made worse by the ongoing drought.

Prior to the drought, she said the agency was serving about 220,000 people a month. With the drought, that number has increased by another 30,000 people a month in the five-county area.

"Every food bank we've spoken to is really grateful to be receiving an entire truckload of fresh produce grown right here in the valley," she said. "Because less fruit is available, they're having a harder time accessing it."

To help address the problem, 15 trucks were loaded with boxes of fresh produce at Simonian Fruit Co. in Fowler before heading to food banks in Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Watsonville, Salinas, Santa Maria, Oxnard, Riverside and San Diego.

"The food we grow here extends far and wide," said Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District. "In fact, most people don't even realize the food they may be eating in other parts of the state, or across the United States, actually originates here."

The Fresno County Farm Bureau, along with many valley farms and businesses, supported the food donation effort, as did irrigation districts and service groups such as the Girl Scouts of Central California-South and the Fresno Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as well as California State University, Fresno.

Participants said the coalition hopes not only to bring attention to the impact of the drought and how far-reaching it is, but also to set the stage for future food donation drives as the crisis deepens during the winter. Diedrich said the effort also brings attention to the fact that an unreliable water supply jeopardizes everyone's food security.

"The drought has impacted California's food banks because they can no longer adapt to the spike in food prices resulting from a lack of water for farmers," said Cannon Michael, president of Los Banos-based Bowles Farming Co. "This campaign has been launched to feed the needy and raise awareness about how the drought hurts the most vulnerable people in the state."

Drought-related land fallowing brings "many unintended consequences," Michael said.

"We hope raising awareness about the drought will bring all stakeholders together to find short- and long-term solutions," he said.

Westside farmer Sarah Woolf said the coalition will continue to support food banks.

"This was just one small aspect of how we're trying to help," she said.

When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a zero water allocation for farm customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva said his community knew it was facing "a terrible situation." But he said the city learned from the drought in 2009 and immediately began preparing.

"We got service agencies and utilities to come in and set up assistance programs right away," Silva said. "We've added recreational opportunities for our youth to keep them busy and we've been finding ways to support our schools."

In 2009, Silva said water shortages led to severe social problems such as domestic violence and higher school dropout rates that might have been eased with adequate social services. The unemployment rate in Mendota today is in the range of 35 percent, he said, compared to 50 percent at the same time in 2009.

"Unemployment is still high, but not as bad as we feared," Silva said. "But we're not out of danger yet. I understand it's going to be a short growing season this year, harvest is nearly over, and that means more people will be unemployed for a longer time. We haven't seen the worst yet."

He said Mendota residents have been planning ahead and "trying to get the resources they'll need to get by until they can go back to work next year," and more agencies are prepared to help.

"But it's going to be a long winter," Silva said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.