California’s Central Valley and Food Insecurity: Why can’t farmers afford the very food they farm?

Introductory Video

Origins of the Problem:

In 1930s America, during the peak of the period now known as the Great Depression, the Southwestern Great Plains earned itself a not too nice new nickname. Known as the “Dust Bowl,” its fertile grasslands were now overfarmed and the dirt it had previously held was sent up into the air. High winds resulted in dust storms that made it virtually impossible to farm the destroyed soil, leaving the poor farmers without any means of making a living ( Editors, 2009). Coupled with the economic disaster that was the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl forced the farmers to seek better lives out west, leaving behind their useless land and uprooting their entire families in an effort to improve their situation. Many of these farmers moved to California, where they found themselves discriminated against and forced to work hard and back-breaking jobs for little money just to put a menial amount of food on the table. Living in impoverished “shantytowns” and laboring in the fields for tiny amounts of money, their new lives were almost as bad as the ones they had so desperately escaped from ( Editors, 2009). Many “Okies”, as they were collectively known, were forced to live in wretched conditions and the diets of many of these “Okies” were not healthy or substantial enough. Death, especially among younger children, was very common as they did not have access to the appropriate nutrients needed to survive.When John Steinbeck went to a “shantytown while researching for his bestselling book, he talked about a young child that died in the “shantytowns” saying: “They know pretty well that it was a diet of fresh fruit, beans and little else that caused his death” (Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies, San Francisco News). 

History of People Working on Problem:

Many of these issues facing the “Okie” were brought to center stage after the publishing of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath. Depicting an “Okie” family and their journey and life in the Dust Bowl and subsequently in California. The novel depicted the brutal reality of life for the immigrants from the Great Plains and helped raise awareness of the issue. People called for public reform of the agricultural system in the Central Valley and for better living conditions for the immigrants. The “Okies” managed to persevere and battle through the tough life they found themselves in and nowadays Midwestern culture is such a key part of the identity of the Central Valley and the “Okies” are no longer some separate economically lower group in the valley.

“1 in 3 children in Fresno County, one of the most populous regions in the valley, are food-insecure”

Central Valley Food Access Working Group

Current Status of Problem:

When fresh and healthy produce is everywhere around you, it is hard to imagine that you will not know where your next meal will come from, but for farm laborers and their families in California’s Central Valley today, this is quite often the case. These farmworkers, who day after day toil in Californian farms to provide fresh produce for the state, are often unable to afford the very food they farm. Instead, they are forced to turn towards unhealthier alternatives such as fast food or other high-calorie meals if anything at all. The Central Valley is a 450 mile-long stretch of land that produces a fourth of all food consumed in the United States (USGS). This agricultural powerhouse employs thousands of men and women to keep its gears running, but these poor farmers can often be overlooked when compared to the hugely successful machine they keep operational. As seasonal laborers, they are paid insubstantial and inconsistent amounts but are still expected to put food on the table for their families. This system has left many children and their parents hungry. For example, 1 in 3 children in Fresno County, one of the most populous regions in the valley, are food-insecure (Central Valley Food Access Working Group). Across the Central Valley, not just in Fresno but from Redding in the north to Bakersfield down south, the prevalence of food insecurity is apparent. Food insecurity is defined by Feeding America as a way of describing “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life” (Feeding America). A food-insecure Californian today may seem just like any normal person, but behind the curtain of normality, they are unable to support themselves with a substantial and healthy diet. The invisibility the situation can have today makes the issue as scary if not scarier than issues of the past and shows why the Central Valley needs help alleviating food insecurity.

“in California, all public schools must make at least one such meal per day available to any enrolled student who is determined eligible for free or reduced-price school meals”

California Food Policy Advocates

Work on Alleviating Problem So Far:

So far, help in combatting hunger has come from three main sources: school lunch programs, food stamps, and food banks.

  1. School Lunch Programs: School lunch programs are an extremely popular way to help feed children when their families are unable to. According to one study of 454 farm workers in Fresno county, 54% of farmworkers reported that they “relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed children because they were running out of money to buy food” (Wirth, Hunger in the Fields). While 40% reported that their “children [were] not eating enough because [they] just couldn’t afford enough food” (Wirth, Hunger in the Fields). Since school is where children will spend most of their days, it makes sense that targeting food insecurity through school lunches could help out the Central Valley. By making sure that children have access to a good meal once or twice a day, the schools both feed the child and take stress off of the already overburdened parent. The United States has a school lunch program that provided meals to 30.7 million students in 2016 and “in California, all public schools must make at least one such meal per day available to any enrolled student who is determined eligible for free or reduced-price school meals” (California Food Policy Advocates). 
  2. CalFresh: Otherwise known as Food Stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CalFresh, a program that has around 4 million participants as of 2018, helps provide food for low-income families across the state (Kids Data). Calfresh is a federal government-subsidized program that transfers money to a family’s EBT card that can then be used to buy groceries. The food stamp programs have proved to be an effective way of combating food insecurity and in Sacramento County, the Central Valley’s most populous county, close to 200,000 people were on food stamps in 2018 (Kids Data). Food stamps, because families no longer have to spend all of their money on food, allow families a chance to conserve their money and spend it on other useful goods they couldn’t afford before, slowly allowing families to get back on their feet. 
  3. Food Banks: Food banks exist in almost every county in the Central Valley and help to feed thousands of people each year. Food Banks receive excess food from farms and buy more food using monetary donations and then distribute this food either directly to those who are hungry or to soup kitchens scattered across the counties (Merced County Food Bank). They are an easy and direct way to get food out to those who need it the most. 

“Of the nation’s most food-insecure counties (the top 10 percent), 76 percent are rural”

Merced County Food Bank

Proposed Solutions:

Personal Scale Solution:

Although the task of solving food insecurity in the Central Valley may seem daunting, there are multiple small steps that could be taken that can at least put the region and its people on the right track towards fighting hunger. One possible idea to help these farmworkers is to have the farm owners create a system of staff discounts on their fresh produce that would allow them to still make a profit but also allow for the fresh fruits and vegetables that the farm laborers lack in their diet. The farm owners could charge either at production cost or only 5-10% above production cost to allow the food to be affordable compared to the higher fees that one would pay at a grocery store. With the discounted produce, farmworkers would be able to afford healthy food for their families and they could also create a possibility for them to generate additional income. Since the food laborers’ purchase would be cheaper than in a grocery store, they could buy the product in bulk from their employers and then sell them at local farmers markets for grocery store prices. This would allow farm workers to have a secondary source of income and bring home more money for their families. 

Larger Scale Solution:

A larger scale solution would be to raise more awareness in both the state and national governments towards the issues prominent in the Central Valley. As a largely rural area, the Central Valley can often hide in the shadows when compared to the multiple cities in California that rank among the top 10 most populated cities in the United States. According to a report supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, “The Central Valley does not always receive the same attention and resources for combatting hunger as other parts of California” (Central Valley Food Access Working Group). Yet, the food insecurity rates in rural areas like the Central Valley can be the same if not higher than those in densely populated urban areas. For example, “Of the nation’s most food-insecure counties (the top 10 percent), 76 percent are rural” (Merced County Food Bank). By creating awareness online and through flyers and other forms of media, as well as lobbying in Sacramento and Washington D.C, people could raise awareness to the issue of food insecurity in the Central Valley so that it could get the same spotlight other areas have. If the state’s attention were to turn more towards agricultural areas like the Central Valley to help stop food insecurity, then programs like the school lunches, food stamps, and food banks that have been proven to work already, could be even more successful with the goverment funding and support these programs desperately need.  


If you would like to read my full essay on Food Insecurity in the Central Valley in full click then click here

Link to Bibliography:


I would love to here any feedback you have for my project. If you do have any helpful comments, whether supportive or constructive, I would be grateful if you left them down below. 

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Ryan

    Hey Samuel,

    I really enjoyed reading your web page! I found your topic compelling and ironic as you said in your video. Your quotes and infographic really portrayed the issue well and motivated me to want to help.

    Great job with the webpage and spreading awareness!

  2. April 23, 2020 by Karen

    Hi Sam, You did a really good job of placing the problem of food insecurity among farmworkers in historical perspective. I find it interesting that once the dust bowl migrants, who were white, moved up in the world (actually, did they? or did they just move out of farming into different low wage jobs?), then immigrant farmworkers, mostly from Mexico, were recruited to do the labor–and perhaps because they were immigrants and non-white, it was easier to continue treating them poorly up to today. Did you find anything on the racial angle of farm labor?

  3. April 23, 2020 by Nick

    Has climate change affected the issue of food security in the central valley?

  4. April 24, 2020 by Andrea

    Hi Samuel,

    Thanks to your project, I learned something new today! Do you know how the current global pandemic has affected these farmworkers, and the efforts to help them get their food?

  5. April 25, 2020 by kira

    Hi Sam. I really enjoyed reading your webpage. I think your solutions really stand out, they are great! I was also wondering how Covid has affected these farmworkers. Nice job!

  6. April 26, 2020 by Katie

    Hello! I really enjoyed reading your project. I had no idea about this issue. Do you know why this issue is more prevalent in California’s farming communities than in other states?

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