Mendota residents line up at 5 a.m. to wait to receive food from the biweekly Fresno Community Food Bank food distribution.
A heaping pile of scrap metal looms over a small pumpkin patch in the backyard of the Leon family home. Lately the pile, made up of tire rims, strips of metal shelving, an old washing machine, a 26-inch television and a frame of an old van, plays a vital role in the family’s evolving survival strategy.
“We sell these scraps of metals for some extra cash,” said Rene Leon, 21, the oldest of five, looking at the heaping pile of junk. “We only sell it when it gets really bad.”
These days in Mendota, it’s really bad.
The recession has brought deepening hard times to this farming community of 10,339, already beset by a severe water shortage. Mendota’s water problems, combined with the state’s economic crisis, have sent the community’s unemployment rate – which last year stood at 27 percent – to nearly 42 percent, throwing more people into poverty, according to Mayor Robert Silva.
Ten years ago, U.S. Census figures show, the poverty rate was 41.9 percent. Now, say local leaders, it is far higher.
“Mendota has always been living in poverty,” said Nancy Daniels, executive director of Westside Youth, Inc. a local organization that distributes food to the community on the second Thursday of each month.
“But this is definitely the worst that I have ever seen.”
As unemployment and poverty rise, so does hunger and food insecurity. Families and individuals in Mendota are considering increasingly desperate measures to keep food on the table, while coming together to help each other in need.
“There are a lot of food donations coming in from within and outside of the community,” Mayor Robert Silva said. “But it is still not enough to feed everyone.”
Since the recession struck California and the nation, Americans have become accustomed to stories about long lines and empty shelves at local food banks. They drop donations into collection bins at community and charity food drives, believing this provides the hungry with the cushion they need.
But here in the homes and on the streets of this struggling rural community, it is clear that reversing the course of food insecurity in California towns like Mendota will not be solved with handouts alone. It is a much more formidable challenge.
“The folks in Mendota need more sustainable jobs,” said Dana Wilkins, CEO and President of the Community Food Bank in Fresno.
“But this is a challenge,” she added. “We’re talking about years down the road. The problem in the Central Valley is not going to be solved any time soon, unfortunately.”
In the meantime, Mendota residents are trying to get creative to survive the lean winter in the Central Valley.
Rene Leon, standing next to his backyard heap of scrap metal, explained that for the frame of an eight-passenger van, given to them by a family friend, he would only get about $30 in cash. But once he and his younger brother, Freddy, wield a blow torch to cut the body into several parts, they can triple their income.
“When we cut it into pieces, we can sell it for more,” said Leon, who had to give up college education to help out the family. “We could probably get about $100.”
The Leon family did not have to resort to selling scraps of metal for extra money two years ago. However, like many other Mendota residents, they have been forced to find different ways to get the extra cash for food, and to keep the utilities running at home.
Leon, laid off his job as a farm worker about a month ago, now scours the neighborhood for yard work or other odd jobs. Many of his neighbors are doing the same thing, while others have basically given up.
Manuel Corez, 45, has been unable to find a job for the past year and is now homeless. He lives with two other people in a makeshift shack that they built next to the water canal outside of the town center.
“I go hungry for three to four days, sometimes,” he said. “But, I’ve always managed to get help from people around me eventually.”
To get a little bit of extra cash or food, Corez waters a neighbor’s backyard or folds boxes at a nearby convenient store to be thrown away.
“They are nice enough to give me $5 or a beer and cigarettes,” he said.
However, even those odd jobs are growing scarce.
“They are also hurting from the job loss, so they can’t have me work as often anymore,” Corez said.
When times get really tough, Corez goes to a local Chevron gas station in the evenings and asks for the leftovers that are going to be tossed out.
“I would help them clean up so that I can get some hot dogs that they are going to throw away,” he said.
However, the gas station’s manager commented that they have stopped giving out food out of fear that someone would get sick from it.
Corez showed off another recent prize: three cups of instant ramen and one bag of beans, courtesy of the local Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“I have to share this with the other people,” he said. “But it’s OK. When we help others, others will help us too.”
This belief seems to be what most Mendota residents live by.
“It’s incredible how the situation has created fellowship within the population,” Father Gaspar Bautista of Our Lady of Guadalupe said. “People help and comfort one another.”
“We have 20 people come to the church asking for food on a daily basis,” he added. “Out of the eight years of being a priest here, this is the worst year economically that I have ever seen.”
Getting food hand-outs is not the only survival option for Mendota residents. Many, like the Leon family, are taking alternative measures to get some extra money for food and other necessities.
Down the street from the Catholic church, Carlos Martinez and Pasqual Ayala spend their mornings pushing a shopping cart filled to the brim with recyclables. The two men search the town to look for empty cans and plastic bottles. They push the cart around in the heat of the summer and cold of the winter all for the grand sum of $10 per day. They split the money in half.
Ayala still has his job as a farm worker, but he worries that he may soon lose it like many of his friends.
“I am on a hustle right now,” he said.
The farm workers are not the only ones hurting from the loss of jobs.
“Since the majority of the residents in Mendota are farm workers, the ripple effect goes beyond them,” said Dayatra Latin, Director of Programs and Development of the Community Food Bank in Fresno.
“There’s so much agriculture in Mendota that everyone is affected.”
Mary Singh, the owner of Flowers from the Heart, a flower store in Mendota is hurting badly from the loss of farm jobs. The colorful balloons around the store and the few vases of flowers on display are a painful reminder of the good days a couple of years ago for Singh.
“I am really lucky if I even get one person to come in into the store each day,” Singh said. “If things continue to go this way, I will have to close the store down.”
Singh is waiting for Valentine’s Day next year to make that decision. Right now, she said she does not have to resort to any food lines yet. “But if this is how it’s going to be, I would have to soon,” she added.
The biggest food distribution in Mendota is provided by the Fresno Community Food Bank. Hundreds of people line up to receive boxes of food that are supposed to last them for two weeks.
On a recent pre-dawn morning, Rene Leon stood in the cold rain, waiting for his boxes of canned and dried foods. Residents of Mendota and hurting communities nearby had begun lining up as early as midnight. Leon arrived at 5:15 and was given a ticket a couple of hours later: #159, signifying his place in line.
“We haven’t seen rain for a while,” Leon said. “And, of course, it has to happen when I line up for the first time in my life.”
Covered in blankets and rain coats to shield themselves from the rain and wind, hundreds of people in line move forward to get their boxes. Each family is represented by one or two people to collect the food that will have to stretch for the next two weeks.
At 10:35, after more than five hours in line, Leon finally receives his boxes of food, consisting of cans and packages of things like peaches, sweet potatoes, beans, rice and dry milk.
The Leons will still have to stretch the foods given out to make it last until the next distribution and through the long winter.
“We used to eat steaks at least once every week,” Leon said. “Now, it’s always rice and beans.”
“God willing the situation will get better,” said Leon’s mother, Cecilia Magaña, 40. “Hopefully, soon.”
With the lack of funding from the state, the Fresno Community Food Bank had had to stop the biweekly food distribution to Mendota and the other affected areas at the end of October.
Wilkie said that the food bank is in the process of getting more funding to continue the distribution regularly in December.
“The need for food is the highest around this time, because the farming seasons are ending for the winter,” she said.
“This winter is going to be really hard,” said Magaña. “I’m just glad that I have my family with me. They are the only one I have.”
The Leon family, along with many other Mendota residents, is living on the edge to brace themselves for what seems to be one of the worst times of their lives. One scrap metal, one recyclable and one food donation at a time.
This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Hunger in the Golden State, a multimedia project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting.