Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Food Aid Grows in California's Agricultural Heart

SEPTEMBER 2, 2009

Central Valley Residents Struggle as Recession, Limited Water Supplies Hit Farms; 'This Is the Worst I've Ever Seen It'

By JIM CARLTON, Wall Street Journal

SELMA, Calif. -- The combined punch of drought, water restrictions and recession has created an ironic situation in California's Central Valley: Officials are handing out tons of food in the heart of one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.

Volunteer Gabriel Martinez of Fresno, Calif., waits for people to pick up boxes of cereal during a food giveaway in Selma Aug. 27.

At a dusty flea market in this Fresno County town last week, more than 800 people -- many farmworkers -- lined up for two weeks' supply of cereal, rice, canned tomatoes and other basics. They waited in 99-degree heat as the food was distributed from 6 a.m. until late afternoon.

"We either have money for gas and medicine, or food -- not both," Helen Hernandez, a 51-year-old mother of four, said after collecting a pallet of food from the relief drive. Ms. Hernandez said her husband, David, 49, has been out of work since losing his $1,200-a-month job at a tomato-packing house last year.

For the 12-month period ended June 30, the Fresno Community Food Bank distributed a record 14.5 million pounds of food to residents of a three-county area -- double the previous year. So many people mobbed one food-distribution center two weeks ago that some who had waited in triple-digit heat for hours were turned away empty-handed after the food ran out. Unemployment in the counties in July ranged from 13.9% to 15%, compared with 11.9% for California as a whole, state officials say.

California's Central Valley normally serves as the nation's food basket. But amid a severe drought in the region, so many farmers have lost their jobs, they are being forced to line up for food handouts and other assistance.

"There's never been this kind of need in the Central Valley, ever," said Dana Wilkie, chief executive of the Fresno food bank. "In some communities, we're serving 80% of the residents."

The Central Valley, a 400-mile-long, 18-county inland area that relies heavily on agriculture, has suffered in the recession amid low demand for products like milk and almonds as well as a collapse in its once-booming housing market. At the same time, the region is grappling with drought and federal environmental rulings that have reduced water shipments to local farmers to as little as 10% of their normal allotments.

Some farmers have sidelined much of their acreage, throwing packers and field pickers out of work. In the Westlands Irrigation District, which serves about 700 farmers in the western part of the valley, more than 260,000 of the 600,000 acres that are typically home to tomatoes, lettuce and other crops have been taken out of production this year, officials say.

In all, farmers in the valley stand to lose between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion in revenue this year, with 60,000 to 80,000 people thrown out of work, projects a study by the University of California, Davis.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it in the valley," said John Harris, chairman and chief executive of Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., which is farming about 4,500 acres compared with a normal total of about 14,000.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency for nine Central Valley counties and asked President Barack Obama to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area. The designation was intended, in part, to help finance food shipments to the county.

But officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request, saying state and local entities had adequate resources. Mr. Schwarzenegger last week appealed the denial, which FEMA officials say they are reviewing. In the meantime, Mr. Schwarzenegger's office allotted about $4 million for five weeks' worth of food shipments, which began about a month ago.

At the recent food distribution in Selma, 46-year-old Leticia Reyes waited to load food in her car. Laid off a few weeks ago from her $1,200-a-month job at a fruit-packing plant, the mother of four said the family is left to pay its $600 monthly rent and other bills on her husband's $900-a-month pay as an auto mechanic and her $600 in monthly unemployment benefits.

"We're really struggling, so this food helps a lot," said Mrs. Reyes.

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

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