Fresno is the nation's No. 1 agriculture county. With annual ag output valued at $5.7 billion, Fresno County is the leading contributor to California's spot as the top-producing agriculture state in the country. And yet nearly 25% of Fresno residents live below the poverty line, without access to a stable food supply, let alone the wealth generated by our ag economy.
As a Fresno native studying food systems at Stanford University, I've enjoyed examining the Valley's agricultural wealth from an academic standpoint, and I have realized how lucky I was to grow up eating locally grown foods.
But Fresno County's well-deserved praise for a robust farm economy should be taken with a grain of salt, since the county's overall system of food distribution doesn't allow equal access to fresh foods for all residents.
As of 2012, the Fresno metropolitan area was ranked as the second most impoverished in the nation. To address health inequities related to poverty and unequal access to fresh foods, we can provide fresh, local foods at a venue where residents have access regardless of family income: schools.
In a 2010 national study conducted by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C., Fresno was found to have the highest food hardship rate among more than 100 metropolitan areas throughout the nation. FRAC defines food hardship as not having enough money to purchase the food one needs.
But beyond the inability to purchase foods, many residents living in southwest Fresno don't even have access to food. This part of Fresno was designated a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its lack of viable food options and grocery stores. And as often occurs, hunger and lack of access coincide with high levels of obesity: 36% of adolescents in southwest Fresno are overweight or obese.
Fresno sits atop two lists: national agricultural output and food hardship rate. This "Fresno paradox" only confirms that the current food system in America presents a complex problem that will require a concerted, interdisciplinary approach when looking for solutions.
One possible way the Fresno paradox can be alleviated is through the implementation of a countywide farm-to-school program that directly sources produce from Fresno county farms to all elementary schools. The program would get the 71.6% of children who are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches in Fresno County healthy foods and benefit small- to mid-size local farmers.
The Fresno Food System Alliance already has made steps toward the implementation of a farm-to-school program. The alliance has formed a farm-to-school committee and facilitated an initial partnership between a small farmer and Fresno Unified School District, but there is more to be done. It is promising, however, that in 2013, Pao Saephan, a strawberry farmer from Reedley, was the first small farmer to partner with FUSD to directly sell his produce to the district's food services.
This partnership seems to produce a win-win situation. Produce bought from local farmers often is cheaper, fresher and tastier, which is important for encouraging students to consume more fresh produce. And small farmers such as Pao Saephan gain greater financial security if they form partnerships with larger institutions like FUSD.
So what's the drawback? Why don't all Fresno schools have direct farm-to-school programs if the schools, farmers and kids benefit? Jose Alvarado, the food services director for FUSD, says that not all small farmers are trained in food safety and lack the certification that makes direct sourcing to schools possible. But we can meet these needs with targeted investments.
Fresno sits atop two lists: national agricultural output and food hardship rate. Perhaps the establishment of initiatives that get small farms food safety certified and farm-to-school programs underway is the logical next step if we want to get off that second list.
Annie Rempel, a senior at Stanford University, is a native of Fresno.