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For some in the Valley of Plenty, next meal is uncertain

Jessica Ortiz often worries about what to feed her family.
Jessica Ortiz often worries about what to feed her family.
Scott Anger/KQED

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This is the first of a 3-part series by KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting

To get to Jessica Ortiz’s kitchen, you have to step over some rotting floorboards in the crowded living room, peel back a curtain, and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. She’s got the shades drawn to keep out the heat and the bugs. But you can see her face by the dim light that shines when she cracks open the refrigerator door.

“This is what our refrigerator looks like at the end of the month. It’s still a few days until we get our food stamps,” Ortiz said.

Her husband, Oscar, is out working in the almond orchards, and she’s trying to figure out what to feed her five kids tonight. She’s got a few eggs, some potatoes, and half a bag of breakfast cereal.

“We don’t have milk,” she said, adding that her children’s sandwich supplies have also run out. “Our freezer is totally empty.”

Tonight, she might end up making Hamburger Helper “without the hamburger.”

The Ortiz family lives in Raisin City, a speck on the map about 25 miles southeast of Fresno. It’s surrounded by vineyards, and the sandy soil here leaves a haze of dust hanging over everything: its lone elementary school and its tiny park, where residents’ boom boxes often blare music in Spanish.

Many field workers here are from Mexico. But others, like the Ortizes, are California natives. Oscar is deaf. Jessica dropped out of her senior year of high school after getting pregnant with their first child.

Their job prospects might be better in a bigger city. But here the only work is in the fields, and it’s seasonal and often part time. Oscar Ortiz makes an average of $170 per week. Not enough, says Jessica, to cover the basics.

“My electricity came up to almost $300. My water’s $140. So it’s pretty hard,” she explained.

The Ortizes rent a house for $800 a month, with broken windows, chipped paint and a front yard that’s nothing but packed dirt. Other farmworker families here live in trailers without running water or electricity.

Feeding the World — and Going Hungry

Jessica Ortiz pays the rent with cash aid from the government that varies, depending on Oscar’s income in the fields.

“He’s out there picking for almost the whole world, and I mean, he only brings like so much money home to feed his own family,” Ortiz said. “We have many, many field workers that do that. They’re out there providing for everybody else’s family and barely bring home enough to take care of their own.”

Their monthly food stamp allotment of $800 goes quickly at the local mini-mart in Raisin City.

Ortiz walks there with her kids to pick up groceries. She can rattle off the price of almost everything the market sells, part of the careful calculus of balancing the household budget for seven people.

“For a gallon of milk, it’s like $4.99. For eggs it’s like $3.50. A loaf of bread is $3.50,” she said. These prices are much higher than in big grocery stores.

And there’s hardly any produce, except for some wilting cilantro and cabbage, and bananas turning brown in a basket near the cash register.

Junk food is a cheaper choice. The Ortiz kids eagerly reach into the ice cream cooler. Jessica Ortiz buys herself some beef jerky, then scrutinizes her receipt as she leaves the store.

“I got a loaf of bread, a gallon of juice, and three ice creams, and it was $13.15,” she said. “I could have got it cheaper in Fresno.”

'Food System Beyond Broken'

But getting to a grocery store in Fresno isn’t easy. The Ortizes don’t have a car. Taking the bus turns into an all-day trip since it only stops in Raisin City in the morning and doesn’t return until late afternoon. Ortiz can’t afford to pay a babysitter in order to take the trip. And sometimes, she can’t even scrape together the $6 round-trip fare.

“The food system here locally is beyond broken,” said Sarah Ramirez, former epidemiologist for neighboring Tulare County.

“When I worked at the public health department, we could tell people, 'Yes, you’re supposed to eat so many servings of fruits and vegetables.’ It’s easy to say and not take into account the environment — the fact that in these communities sometimes soft drinks are more affordable than water,” Ramirez said.

This region ranks among the highest in the nation when it comes to food insecurity, or families not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

But it’s also struggling with an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

“Maybe you’re having to make the choice of even buying lesser-quality food just to fill up on calories. So that your kids and your family don’t go hungry,” Ramirez said.

"What we tend to see happening quite a bit is parents skipping meals so their kids can eat."
-Andy Souza

“We’re the most bountiful region in the country, if not the world. Yet we know that one in four families are at risk of going to sleep hungry,” said Andy Souza, director of Fresno's Community Food Bank. “We know that one in three children are at risk of being hungry. There are no simple answers, you know?”

Community food banks distribute food to 190,000 people a month at food pantries, churches and community centers in Fresno, Madera and Kings counties. They’ve become a primary source of nutrition for residents in dozens of rural towns, including Raisin City, where farmworker families line up for hours to make sure they get a box of food.

“A high percentage [of people] we serve are the actual working poor,” Souza said. “We have a situation here in the valley where our unemployment rates have just been historically higher than the rest of the nation and the state. And there’s a significant amount of underemployment that we grapple with.”

Farmworkers, for example, may be out of work during the winter months.

“Folks that are trying desperately just to make ends meet, unfortunately when you have to get between a car payment or a house payment or utilities and food, you can skip a meal,” Souza said. “And what we tend to see happening quite a bit is parents skipping meals so their kids can eat.”