Thursday, June 4, 1998
"Just because people are farmworkers doesn''t mean they have access to food," Luis Sierra, food-security project coordinator for the Rural Development Center (RDC) in Salinas, told a coalition of representatives from social service organizations serving Monterey County at the second Community Food Security meeting held last week in the Salinas City Hall rotunda. The meeting was held to discuss strategies for the development of a food security plan for the county''s lower income residents.
"We need to collectively develop plans for assisting people to gain access to safe, affordable food and look at the work each of us is doing and see how it relates to the work of other agencies," says Sierra.
In addition to Sierra, organizational representatives at the brown-bag lunch-break meeting, held to organize a cooperative effort towards building and maintaining a sustainable community food service, included those from the Monterey County Food Bank, city of Salinas redevelopment and transportation agencies, Dorothy''s Place soup kitchen, Monterey County''s Department of Social Services, Transportation Agency (TAMC), Women Infants and Children (WIC) and Head Start programs, Neighborhood Services and the UC extension Nutrition, Family and Consumer Science Cooperative. Representatives in attendance stressed the need for creating a network of food-supplying services for low-income members of the area.
"We''re looking at how access to food relates to community development," says Sierra. "We''re examining all the components, from trucking to insurance to schools to seed companies."
Sierra says a $100,000 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant awarded to RDC last year has provided the funding for the formation of the coalition, and both short-term and long-term strategies are being developed to meet the food needs of lower income county residents.
One project already underway, through collaboration with WIC, is a culturally appropriate farmer''s market to be set up on East Alisal Street in Salinas. "That would mean including products the farmworker community uses, like tomatillos, nopales, jicamas and different kinds of chiles that you don''t find in quantities in the supermarkets," says Sierra, who adds that location of the farmer''s market within the East Salinas community is vital for community access because of a need for dependable transportation in the area. "When you see shopping carts more than a mile from the market, you know transportation to food supplies is a problem."
The USDA grant also funds the formation of community gardens in low-income neighborhoods. The first of these gardens is on a one-acre lot adjacent to St. Mary''s Church at Second and Alma avenues in East Salinas, where interested gardeners are invited to show up for a workday on June 7.
While support for the community garden and farmer''s market is strong among the members of the Community Food Security coalition, all present agreed to the need for united cooperation in the formation of long-term strategies.
"This group can serve as a county-wide clearinghouse, identifying needs and matching them to the resources," says District 1 Supervisor Simon Salinas. "One issue coming up is welfare reform, where people will no longer have access to food. Community gardens can help with this. When a family needs food right now, you need a coordinated organization to refer them to. Right now, I don''t always know where to send them."
Jesus Armenta, redevelopment project manager for the city of Salinas, and former executive director of the Alisal Merchants Association, says WIC''s welfare-to-work program is interested in involving some of their clients in the farmer''s market, or mercado. "They would learn how to market, and how to operate within a business plan, marketing fresh flowers and other products. It''s an incentive for them to stay within their education program and to develop their skills that will make them marketable."
Armenta says the mercado will be held once or twice a week, beginning with three or four stalls, with clients coming from the WIC center adjacent to the mercado.
He adds that short-term goals that provide employment and long-term goals which will create job opportunities for the homeless and parents are an urgent need. "More and more we''re seeing moms with kids sleeping in their cars in Salinas."
WIC Representative Joann Godoy says 74 percent of all babies born in Salinas, and 60 percent born county-wide, are served by WIC, which provides supplemental food vouchers to low-income parents who attend classes that focus on nutrition education, early brain-growth development, early childhood education and literacy. While additional figures for the numbers of people needing access to emergency food are unclear, Janice Harwood, advisor for UC cooperative extension for family, nutrition and consumer sciences for the tri-county area (Monterey/San Benito/Santa Cruz) relies on a survey conducted by San Jose State University graduate student Carol Russell of Salinas.
"There''s a flux of services providing emergency food, with smaller operations coming and going, churches giving out what they have, and other back-door services," says Russell. "In my survey, I received information from 36 food-pantry programs, who deliver 9,432 meals each month, while 3,204 food boxes, bags and food vouchers are distributed monthly in Monterey County. I estimate that 7,500 people benefit on a monthly basis from emergency food providers."
Robert Smith, representative from Dorothy''s Place, a kitchen in Salinas that provides some 5,000 lunches for the homeless each month, says serving emergency meals doesn''t solve the problem of food security. "We need to grow out of the soup kitchen and find a way to provide work opportunities for people. Hundreds of people are coming to Dorothy''s every day with no access to employment that will provide a living wage."