Above: (Image: Olivia Rodriguez/Coachella Unincorporated)
By Amanda Flores and Olivia Rodriguez
Editor’s Note: The Eastern Coachella Valley has a long history of robust agricultural production. The rural area, known for having rich soil and a warm climate year round, produces approximately $600 million in agricultural products a year and is home to more than 40 different crop varieties, growing everything from citrus to lush turf for golf courses. Yet families who reside and work in this area live in a ‘food desert,’ a place where fresh produce and nutritious foods are difficult to obtain due to the lack of availability, access and cost. The further east families live in the ECV, the fewer opportunities they have to purchase healthy foods. Coachella Uninc. spoke with a group a local farmworkers to find out what community members do to access healthy food and what they think is the biggest barrier to purchasing healthy food for themselves and their families.
Is it hard for farmworker families in the ECV access to healthy foods?
Maria: Well yes, it’s hard because we’re working all the time and on the day that we don’t work, we have to go to the grocery store, which is usually on Sundays. And then it is difficult to go to the grocery store too. Public transportation comes by every three hours and I have to spend all day over in Coachella and that is difficult. The location of the shopping centers are far away.
Delia: From here in North Shore it’s about 40 minutes to Coachella or Indio [on the bus]. Usually I go shopping on Saturdays with my family and I’m very tired because I get out of work around 6:30pm, then I shower and leave. At 11pm we’re filling the car with gas and heading back home. By that time, it’s already dark and I come home tired for the next day. But more than anything else, it’s hard to buy healthy food because the prices are high. For example, a cauliflower that we harvest at work is about $2.50 in the store.
Adriana: Yes, prices are high. Healthy food is not just a lettuce or a cabbage, which are some of the cheapest items, there are other things we need to buy.
Since grocery stores are not easily accessible, how do you provide food for your family?
Delia: So when we’re working in the fields, we’ll take [fruits and vegetables] from there then we exchange the crops we’re working on with our neighbors.
Maria: Yes, because you always have the crop you’re working in available, whether it be an orange or a lemon or another fruit. But it’s true that you distribute the [fruits and vegetables] among neighbors.
Veronica: For example, the neighbor that works in the grapefruit will bring us some. We work in the dates, so we share with our neighbors too. It helps us because sometimes I don’t have onions and suddenly a neighbor comes, when onions are in season, and brings me onions and it helps me.
Adriana: It does help, but it’s not sufficient for a daily thing. For my family of four, a watermelon will last us one day and it’s not like we can only have a variety of fruits, because having healthy food is other things too.
How do you prioritize what food to buy for your families?
Maria: I always look at affordability, I look at the newspapers to see where the prices are cheaper, a dollar less, or a cent, or whatever. I am always looking for the most affordable because I have to. I am a single mother and I have three daughters and I have to cover everything, the water payments, light payments, everything.
Veronica: There are times, especially when you have children, that this happens. We need to make car payments and rent. You have to make those payments first. You leave food last because first you have to secure the car to go to work, then housing and then food. It’s not that we don’t know what healthy food is, but at least in my case, I come from a low income family where we ate what we had. This happened when my daughters were small. We sacrificed when it came to food and we said, ‘At least they had a meal at school.’ We did make sure they had the basics, like milk and cereal.
Martinez: Yes, the basics. Maintaining a healthy diet comes at a price. And another thing that makes it difficult is most people here do seasonal work.
Veronica: Yes, we sacrifice and buy only what we can with the money we have because we live on a minimum wage and that does not provide for a lot.
What would help you have more access to healthier foods?
Veronica: Sources of work and job opportunities that pay us well. If there were more opportunities to work we would have better way to live. Our jobs in the fields are temporary, and if it’s raining you do not work. However long the rain lasts, is how long people will last without working. I believe that we all come with the dream of wanting a better life, but with the minimum wage we can not live the life that we believed we would have when we came to live here. We all come from low income families in Mexico, so we live according to our salary and we survive.
Delia: As one who is always working by contract, sometimes it’s enough and sometimes it’s not. I try to stretch my salary. I always have to. My daughters always say, ‘Oh mom,’ and I always say I have to make sure we pay what we owe and we have to make sure we can provide for anything that might come up.
Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.
Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), on barriers to food access for farmworkers …
“It’s not because the food is not there. It’s because they can’t afford to buy it. It’s going to be five years before the minimum wage goes up to $15 and in 2020, farmworkers will get overtime after working eight hours a day. It’s really discouraging to me that farmworkers have been consistently left out of Fair Labor Standards. Until we value our workers, we’ll never have a solution. Of course, there are charitable solutions, but charity is not sustainable. What is sustainable, it making sure people have a living wage.”
About the Authors:
Amanda Flores, 16, is a lifelong Coachella resident. She joined Coachella Unincorporated earlier this year and has already written several articles on community health and farmworker services. After high school, Amanda said she wants to study law or medicine. View Amanda‘s author page here.
Olivia Rodriguez, 24 is from Thermal, CA. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2015 with a Biology degree. One of her favorite places in the Eastern Coachella Valley is the Mecca Park where you can find her playing ball. At the end of a long day she loves spending time with her family in their garden enjoying a cup of unsweetened chamomile or hibiscus tea. View her author page here.