Monday, October 11, 2010

Abundance of Need

     I've been running a cooking club after school with some of my middle school students.  We don't have access to many resources.  More than 90% of the students at my school qualify for free lunches, which puts our school in the "high poverty" categorization.  We make do with what we have though.  We all bring food in to share, and we choose simple recipes.  We only cook on two days of every week.
     At the beginning of the year, I asked my students how they wanted to divide the club up, and we decided to do themed cultural weeks.  This week we're doing French foods; last week we cooked simple Mexican foods; and the preceding week we cooked American foods.  I let them vote on two menu items for each week.  I chuckled to myself when they chose hamburgers and hot dogs for our two American food items, and I showed them Super Size Me on the days that we weren't cooking.  One student got the hint and disgustedly asked me if we were still going to make hamburgers the next day.  Most of them still tell me that McDonalds is their favorite food, and that their parents take them there fairly frequently. 
     Something seems off here.  Southern California is one of the richest areas of the country when it comes to farming.  There is an overabundance of fresh produce brought into markets daily from the over 81,000 farms in the Golden State.  According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "California's agricultural abundance includes over 400 commodities."  The CDFA also reported that California is the sole producer (meaning it produces over 99%) of several foods including almonds, artichokes, figs, grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and walnuts.
     So with all of this fresh food around, why is it that people are still choosing McDonalds and In'n'Out over the farmer's market?  An LA Times article noted that obesity is highest among the poorer sections of LA, and one thing's sure, a hamburger at McDonalds is cheaper than a bag of carrots at the market.  But we knew that was an issue already.  We've known that until we make fresh foods more affordable, people are going to keep choosing less healthy fast food alternatives. 
     The awful irony of the matter, however, is the fact that the very people who work on the farms, laboring in the fields all day long under the hot California sun, are the same ones who cannot afford fresh foods.  The LA Times reports that
[Farm work] is not only grueling but seasonal. Certain crops require constant migration. For example, lettuce grows in Yuma from November to March. Then lettuce harvesters migrate to Huron, south of Fresno, for the month of April. Then it's on to Salinas from May through mid-October, and back to Huron through mid-November. On a good day, lettuce crews make up to $14 an hour, but that's only if consumers don't suddenly prefer soup to salad. If they do, wages fall.
With such uncertainty regarding daily and monthly wages, many farmhands cannot afford to feed their families healthy foods.  What's worse, this problem has been rippling under the surface in California for years and years.  Don't believe me?  Go read John Steinbeck.  Read Grapes of Wrath and tell me why the Joad family works all day picking peaches, but none of them ever get to enjoy the taste of a sweet California peach and instead they languish on pig fat.  Things haven't changed much around here, sad to say.  I've been trying to give my students an idea of how they can make healthy choices on a slim budget, but it isn't easy when they literally do not have the money to pay for fresh produce.

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