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Hunger, Jobs and Water Wars

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By Eric Holt-Gimenez and Zoe Brent

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA: Food aid is rolling in to the breadbasket of California. In Fresno County, the state's most productive agricultural area, a hunger crisis has been unfolding for the better part of a year. Some 90,000 people a week lined up at local food banks this holiday season, many of them farm workers. Owing to what he declared a "drought disaster" California Governor Schwarzenegger delivered $4 million in food aid to Fresno last June. This winter he pledged to extend the aid indefinitely.

So why, in California's cornucopian heartland, are the people who grow and harvest our food going hungry?

Many claim California's three-year drought, compounded by reductions in recent water allocations, are behind the crisis, citing job losses in the farm sector. The Fresno Board of Supervisors, the Fresno Community Food Bank, Governor Schwarzenegger and an advocacy group called the California Latino Water Coalition all cite drought, and not the recession, as the primary cause of the hunger crisis.

There is more than one reason to blame hunger on drought. The estimates of farm job losses due to water shortage range widely from 6,000 to 65,000. Fresno County's situation is dire, and by declaring the crisis a natural disaster, the region is eligible for aid that other areas similarly battered by the recession cannot access. But the story does not stop there.

As California's water wars re-ignite, with the move to resuscitate the fifty-year old Peripheral Canal proposal, Fresno's hungry farm workers have become political currency in the state's historic--and endless--battles over water rights. The California Latino Water Coalition (CLWC), a statewide coalition claiming to operate on behalf of Latinos in farm jobs, has become the leading voice decrying the effects of water shortages on Fresno farm and farm worker communities.

However, many say this group does not represent farm workers at all, but the agribusinesses they work for. As Malcolm Maclachlan of Capitol Weekly revealed in October:

The California (Latino) Water Coalition, often described as a grassroots group representing the Latino community, was born in a closed-door meeting of Gov. Schwarzenegger and local officials at Selma City Hall on March 21, 2007 - and was 'suggested' by the governor himself, according to a coalition brochure.

They have refused to disclose information about their donors and their relationship to "Latinos in farm-related jobs" is unclear. The New York Times report on the four day "march for water" in April revealed that some farm workers in the sea of signs reading "No water, No jobs, No food," were paid to march. Long-time farm worker advocates like the United Farm Workers and its co-founder, Dolores Huerta, do not endorse the Coalition.

The CLWC claims it is "dedicated to improving the state's diminishing water supply, a movement that helps to ensure the continued economic growth and prosperity of California." The implication is that more water will mean putting more out-of-work Latinos back in farm-related jobs. What the Coalition does not seem to address, however, are the chronically low wages that keep farm workers food insecure even when they are working.

Alegría de la Cruz, attorney at the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment, and a West Fresno native herself, reveals what she sees as the real secret, "The drought is the biggest spin job the west has ever seen." De la Cruz, the daughter of farm workers herself, finds it "insulting" that after decades of exploitation, the moment their water supply is threatened, agribusinesses prop up the image of the starving farm worker, quietly obscuring the fact that their own poor labor conditions have historically been the reason for high rates of food insecurity.

Even before the recession, hunger amongst California's farm workers was more than three times the national average. A 2007 survey of farm workers in Fresno County by the California Institute of Rural Studies found that 45% of respondents went hungry at some point during the year. Farm job wages have been stagnant for 20 years and some claim they have even gone down. Starvation wages are not limited to farm workers, but pervade the food industry. In 2008, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics listed food preparation and serving related occupations as the lowest paid of all job categories followed by farming, fishing and forestry. Working in the industrial food system--quite literally--doesn't put food on the table.

The situation in Fresno is only a microcosm of the larger state of affairs in the US. This year brought record levels of American families to the food stamp program. The USDA recently released new data on hunger; some 14.6% of Americans went without enough food in 2008. As the numbers roll in for 2009, we can expect even more hungry families. Public food assistance programs in the US were initially created as a safety net for those out of work. The assumption being: it is unemployment that generates the poverty that leads to hunger. Times have changed. Now, over 70% of people eligible for food stamps are working.

Back in Fresno, working or not the hunger crisis is about immediate survival. The Community Food Bank, thankful for the state's disaster aid, has quadrupled their food distribution over the past year, now moving as much food as the San Francisco Food Bank with just one fourth the staff members. Edith Jessup, long time food justice advocate in Fresno, puts it another way. Referring to the food aid sent by the governor she says, "It was the right thing for the wrong reasons."

When the emergency food aid dries up and the dust of the water 'disaster' settles, if poor labor conditions remain unchanged, hard-working families will still go hungry.

The high stakes debates surrounding the Peripheral Canal and other major water infrastructure projects reflect a bare-knuckle round of industrial reshuffling among California's powerful agribusiness interests. With no end to the hunger crisis in sight--and with no political will to address poverty and low wages as the driving cause of hunger--farmworkers are, once again, pawns in the struggle for water and wealth in California.