By the Fresno Food System Alliance
On Oct. 14, the New York Times Magazine published a feature article by Mark Bittman titled “Heavenly Earth,” which highlighted the relationship between farmers and the land in the Central Valley. The San Joaquin Valley of California—a study in contradictions—is both the most productive food producing region in the world and the poorest region in the United States. It is a landscape transformed, through applied science and technical advances, from a Serengeti-scale ecosystem into the planet’s most abundant garden.
As members of the Fresno Food System Alliance, a leading forum bringing together all scales of production agriculture with health, environmental and social justice advocates, we find that the issues raised in Bittman’s article offer a springboard for deeper reflection on the complexity of the problems and our own efforts to address them.
The Valley’s stunning agricultural production of nutritious food is overlain today with some unfortunate byproducts of that transformation. The region faces complex challenges within this paradox of abundance and poverty that have a long history in their creation. Ironically, today, thousands of Valley residents live with persistent hunger and diet-driven diseases amid the plenty of agricultural production that feeds the world.
The Central Valley exemplifies the issues of a country with the lowest per capita food costs in the world but epidemic levels of hunger and obesity. The region’s farmers get frustrated that the story of their work and contributions to society are not always well understood… The Fresno Food System Alliance understands there is a positive link between the viability and value of farming in the Valley with community and public health.
The Fresno Food Systems Alliance is attempting to address the complexities of why this paradox exists in the Valley using a systems approach. Since 2011, as participants in the Fresno Food System Alliance, we have entered into dialogue and collaboration to address our region’s economic, ecological and access challenges and promote innovative regional efforts to transform our place and our communities.
We have undertaken the difficult work of creating an advocacy network dedicated to addressing the contradictions and disparities found in the San Joaquin Valley. The Alliance fosters a dialogue between its diverse stakeholders to champion a food system that cultivates environmental stewardship, social equity and community/economic development. This is how our Fresno Food System Alliance is working with all stakeholders in the system to define the problems, make recommendations and create solutions together.
We recognize that our region supplies nutritious food for the world but still can do more to ensure that our children, our neighbors and our families have access to healthy, affordable, local food. The Alliance is in the process of developing a farm-to-school program for schools in the Valley and specific strategies to enhance our regional food system. We contribute policy guidance for institutions and food processors on healthy food production. We work with small- and large-scale farmers to support the development of farmers’ markets, local aggregation food hubs and public markets, sustainable agricultural practices and community food projects in low-income urban and rural communities. Perhaps most important, we create spaces where public health and food security professionals, environmentalists, residents, community advocates, policymakers, farmers and business leaders can work together to find practical solutions to uniquely difficult problems.
We believe that the San Joaquin Valley is one of our nation’s greatest and most overlooked treasures. We also assert that it cannot be preserved without leadership and change from within. We invite the readers of the New York Times and all stakeholders in, and consumers of, the food we produce to join us in the effort.