Fresno is located in the heart of what farmers like to call the nation's salad bowl -- prime farmland where a multitude of fruits and vegetables are grown. So at first blush, Fresno might seem like an unusual place for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network to hold a half-day meeting about "Ensuring Access to Healthy Foods."
But it's no secret to anyone working in health in California that "food insecurity"is a big problem in the Central Valley. A group of about thirty participants listened yesterday as Edie Jessup of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP) flashed through a powerpoint including the sobering number that 40 percent of the Valley's residents are hungry. "It's a paradox," she said. "We raise the food for the nation."
The point of the meeting was not just to bemoan the problem but to outline strategies for solutions, especially at the local level. After going through the numbers about childhood and adult obesity, high unemployment rates in rural areas and health disparities for communities of color, Jessup said that she sees a big shift from just a few years ago.
“There is something changing here in the Valley. All of a sudden it seems like we’ve hit the tipping point," she told the group. "We have folks doing garden work, organic farms here ... We also have folks doing systemic work so there’s a garden in every community. ... There's all these nascent things happening that weren't happening five years ago."
One of them is the Fresno Food System Alliance which started just 18 months ago. Its main project is connecting small farmers to schools with a "wide group" of stakeholders, Jessup says, including food processors and the public health department. "That is the big impact they want to make -- get local foods into the food system so our kids get healthier AND economically it makes sense."
The economics were important to the one business representative attending. "I'm not the guy who usually sits in this room," said Doug Davidian, laughing. He is a member of the Fresno Business Council and was passionate about the triple bottom line -- economic, environmental as well as access and equity. "It's a team effort that used to be adversarial," he said, adding that linking small farmers with schools makes sense across those three bottom lines.
Jessup also stressed the need to branch out beyond health -- in order to attain health goals. "I never wanted to know about zoning and ordinances, but now I know how much it has to do with food access," she said. "When we got started in farmers' markets, Fresno had only two or three farmers' markets. All of our small ethnic farmers were going to Berkeley or L.A. ... We found out that zoning in Fresno prohibited selling fresh produce in commercial and residential zones. So it made it impossible to start a farmers' market."
CCROPP worked to change those zoning regulations, and now there are more farmers' markets in Fresno, Jessup says.
Ellen Braff-Guajardo of California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) told of progress made on the fresh drinking water front. California Project Lealn surveyed school districts [PDF] in 2009. In 40 percent of districts, no school cafeterias had fresh drinking water available to students. CFPA used this information to back a bill in the California legislature which went into effect on January 1st. Braff-Guajardo reported that numerous school districts across the Central Valley now offer free drinking water in the cafeteria where they had not before.
Students are reaping the benefits on multiple fronts. First, students who are thirsty don't learn as effectively. But having free water available reduces the likelihood that children will drink sugar-sweetened beverages. While sodas are banned from sale in school cafeterias, sugar-sweetened sports drinks are not.