Monday, November 12, 2012

"Everyone Eats There." Yes, but What Do They Eat?

This Mark Bittman story in the annual NYT Magazine food and drink issue appeared last month under several headlines:
  • Heavenly Food
  • California's Central Valley:  Land of a Million Vegetables
  • Everyone Eats There
It is this last headline that has stuck with me--and continued to agitate me.  This is because I find the headline misleading or--perhaps more precisely--because it tells only part of the story.  Bittman's piece is an homage, of sorts, to California's Central Valley, which produces more than a third of the produce grown in the United States.  Bittman writes:
The valley became widely known in the 1920s and 1930s, when farmers arrived from Virginia or Armenia or Italy or (like Tom Joad) Oklahoma and wrote home about the clean air, plentiful water and cheap land. ... Unlike the Midwest, which concentrates (devastatingly) on corn and soybeans, more than 230 crops are grown in the valley, including those indigenous to South Asia, Southeast Asia and Mexico, some of which have no names in English. At another large farm, I saw melons, lettuce, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, chard, collards, prickly pears, almonds, pistachios, grapes and more tomatoes than anyone could conceive of in one place. ... Whether you’re in Modesto or Montpelier, there’s a good chance that the produce you’re eating came from the valley.
Maybe my annoyance with this headline is one of those "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" (versus "Eats Shoots and Leaves) issues.  That is, what Bittman's headline writers probably intended to convey with "Everyone Eats There" is that, wherever you live in the United States, you eat food from California's Central Valley.  The Valley is the "there" and we all eat from its bounty.  As he writes above, whether you are in Vermont or in the valley itself, you probably eat produce grown in this part of California.  What Bittman's story overlooks is that many people in the valley don't get to eat the produce at all.

You see, the headline could also be read to mean something perhaps more accurately expressed as, "Everyone There Eats."  That is, it could be interpreted as meaning that everyone in the valley eats.  Technically, this is true.  But what that interpretation--which might be the "first glance" one for many readers--glosses over is what residents of the valley eat. You see, ironically, the Great Central Valley is home to many food deserts, places where good, nutritious food is hard to get and where people--many of them farm laborers--live in poverty on "liquor store diets." While Bittman waxes poetic about the wonderful array of food grown in the valley, he doesn't acknowledge that many in the valley--including those who grow the food and their children--don't benefit from that bounty.

Others do.  Edie Jessup of Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPPhas called the "poverty of the Central Valley of California and the abundance of the region's agriculture" a "conundrum." Or, as as Cesar Chavez said years ago:
It is ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your table with abundance, have nothing left for themselves.  
In a post a year ago on the California Institute for Rural Studies website, Jessup expanded on the issue:
Fresno County is iconic, and typical of all the Central Valley counties. It is the richest agricultural producing county in the nation and the poorest congressional district in the USA, with poverty and hunger at about 40% according to the California Health Inventory Survey. This paradox results in an abundance of food leaving the region, broken local produce distribution systems, rural corner stores that only sell cheap junk food and soda, fear of ‘la Migra’ (racism), compromised healthcare, and a lack of potable water and transportation access. In Fresno, 85% of school children qualify for free lunch, and 33% grow up in extreme poverty. One-third of children are obese, and 2/3 of adults are obese with a compendium of chronic diseases directly related to diet. Our food deserts are frequently food swamps, where there is ‘food’ available but it is often unhealthy and cheap. Fresno City and the surrounding metropolitan area have a population of over 500,000 and the outlying 14 incorporated cities and over 50 unincorporated areas total over 900,000 people. Significantly, Fresno County produces nearly $5.3 billion from agriculture; however with only one large urban area, most of the county is very rural, as is the entire Central Valley.
recently wrote of one such area in Fresno County:  Mendota, sometimes referred to as the Appalachia of the West.  Jessup calls for remedies to this "entrenchment of food deserts and food swamps, sporadic emergency food distribution, multiple 'pilot' solutions to hunger, and a lack of connections between infrastructure [that] make food access in the Central Valley a social justice issue."  More importantly, through CCROPP, Jessup is working to achieve those remedies.  It's a pity that work such as this--and the crisis to which it responds, do not get the sort of national attention that Mark Bittman commands.  It's also a pity that Bittman doesn't use his platform to talk about issues like these.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

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