California's Central Valley produces many of the fruits and vegetables consumed in America. It is also one of the poorest areas of the country. There are high rates of malnutrition and obesity, and residents have little access to fresh produce themselves.
Environmental conditions such as a lack of sidewalks and streetlights, and packs of wild dogs that keep parents from letting their children go outside to play, discourage exercise and healthy living. Constant gang violence and drugs hamper the efforts of anyone hoping to improve things, but there are some who are trying.
Yesenia Ayala, 20, works at Food Link, a program in Kettleman City that gives free fruits and vegetables to the community.
She says the program starts handing out food at 11 a.m., but people start lining up at 8.
"Kettleman was real rich for its oil," says Ayala, who was raised in the city, which is about halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento. "Its oil wells were going to bring a lot of people, but it never happened. We are a rural community surrounded by fields and crops."
The city of 2,500 has almost no sidewalks, no streetlights and barely a stop sign.
"We don't have grocery stores, which is very hard," Ayala says. "We have to drive 35 miles in order to get to our nearest grocery store."
Kettleman City is on Interstate 5, the north-south corridor straight through the heart of California's Central Valley. The Kettleman City exit is a fast-food mecca.
"Most of the youth in Kettleman work here in the fast-food restaurants," says Ayala, who worked at a Taco Bell in high school. "When I was working out there, I was overweight. We would get our break and we would go eat at Jack in the Box. You see them before they start working in the fast-food restaurant — how slim — and then you see them working up there and you say, 'Whoa, what happened to her?' "
An 'Obesogenic' Environment
Genoveva Islas-Hooker, the daughter of farm workers in Delano, was raised working in the fields herself. She is now the regional program coordinator at the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Fresno. The program looks at obesity from an environmental and policy standpoint.
Central Valley has been described as the new Appalachia. It includes some of the poorest congressional districts with some of the worst health disparities in California.
"Poor communities do not have the infrastructure that supports active lifestyles," Islas-Hooker says. "We don't have sidewalks, we don't have streetlights. There are packs of dogs," which causes many people to stay inside.
"We don't have access to stores, to healthy produce," she says. "We've created this very obesogenic environment, and we question why so many people are obese and overweight and at risk for type 2 diabetes — well, we've engineered it."
Islas-Hooker says her program has tried to create greater access to fresh food by holding farm stands on school campuses.
"In Fresno, there was actually a zoning ordinance that prohibited the establishment of farmers markets," she says. "We had to go in and work at creating a new city ordinance that would allow farmers markets in the last year."
Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of the book West of the West was born in and lives in Fresno, the grandson of an Armenian fruit picker.
"We're living in a region that produces the finest fruits and vegetables in the world, and yet the children of this valley rarely taste those fruits and vegetables," he says.
Alongside the most intensive farm belt the world has ever known, he says, is this stunning poverty. Some neighborhoods in Fresno have the most concentrated poverty of any city in the country, and all the pathology that goes along with it: the drugs and the gangs.
"We produce more meth and more milk than any region in the country," he says.
A Hidden Kitchen Vision
In Bakersfield, another grassroots kitchen effort sprang up from a nutrition class that became The Greenfield Walking Group. Made up mostly of immigrant Latina women, the group is working with the mayor and city council to rid the neighborhood park of stray dogs, drugs, gangs and graffiti, and to create walking paths and playground equipment. The members walk daily, exercise to blaring merengue music, and share potluck meals of enchiladas, chilaquiles and jicama pico de gallo.
"When I saw the women walking around the park, I thought, 'I can do this,' " says Beatriz Basulto. "I am in this group because I am obese and I need to lose weight. When I started, I couldn't get one turn around the park; it was too hard for me. Now I am doing more than 80 abdominals every day."
Across the Central Valley, little inroads are being made to improve public space and the environment that lead to healthier individuals and healthier communities.
"As long as people are indoors because of their fear, they won't come out," Islas-Hooker says. "If we created more forums for neighbors to meet each other — days in the park, farmers markets, community gardens, environments that promote a healthy lifestyle — there's real power when the community members themselves advocate for these changes."
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
California's Central Valley is known as the nation's breadbasket. You may well eat something today that was grown there. Yet, in that valley unemployment is among the worst in the nation. Even before the recession, the Valley was a place of poverty and malnutrition.
Today, our Hidden Kitchens series takes us into the Central Valley's agricultural heart. In the region that produces so many of our vegetables and fruit, rates of juvenile obesity and type 2 diabetes are close to the country's highest. The Kitchen Sisters, producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson call their story the Breadbasket Blues.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. YESENIA AYALA: My name is Yesenia Ayala. I'm 20 years old. I was raised here in Kettleman City, population of 2,500. Kettleman was real rich for its oil. Its oil wells was going to bring a lot of people out here, but it never happened. We are a rural community surrounded by fields and crops. We don't have grocery stores. It's very hard. We have to drive 35 miles in order to get to our nearest grocery store.
Up there, we have Carl's Jr., we have In-N-Out Burger. This place is always packed. Next door, we have a McDonald's. Most of the youth in Kettleman, they work out here in the fast food restaurants. When I was in high school, I worked at Taco Bell. When I was working there, I was overweight. We would get our break and we would just go eat out to Jack in the Box.
You see them before they start working in the fast-food restaurant how slim and then you see them working up there. I was like, oh, what happened to her?
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. GENOVEVA ISLAS-HOOKER (Regional Program Coordinator, Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program): The Central Valley has been described as sort of the new Appalachia. These are the poorest congressional districts with some of the worst health disparities in California.
I am Genoveva Islas-Hooker, Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. Our focus is to look at obesity from an environmental and policy standpoint. Poor communities do not have the infrastructure that supports active lifestyles. We don't have sidewalks, we don't have streetlights. There's packs of dogs. They don't walk because there's nobody in their community that gets the loose dogs.
We don't have access to stores, to healthy produce. We've created this very obesogenic environment, and we question why so many people are overweight and at risk for type 2 diabetes. Well, we've engineered it.
Mr. MARK ARAX (Author, "West of the West"): Here, we're living in a region that produces the finest fruits and vegetables in the world, and yet the children of this valley rarely taste those fruits and vegetables.
My name is Mark Arax. I grew up in Fresno. I came back here as a writer for the Los Angeles Times. My grandfather, when he came here in 1920 from Armenia, he became a migrant fruit picker.
We have created here the most intensive farm belt the world has ever known. Agriculture done at a speed and intensity that's never been done by man. And yet right next to that agriculture is this stunning poverty. The neighborhoods in Fresno have the most concentrated poverty of any city in the country - New Orleans was second in this last survey - and all that pathology that goes along with poverty, you know, drugs. We produce more meth and more milk than any region in the country.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ISLAS-HOOKER: In the Central Valley, the healthy food that's picked is shipped out and then shipped back in to be sold in our grocery stores. In Fresno, we discovered there was actually a zoning ordinance that prohibited the establishment of farmers markets. We had to work at creating a new zoning ordinance that would allow a farmers market in the last year.
These are the hills. You can see it's just like a desert, rattlesnakes. If you go walking out there you'll see mostly older people that have diabetes, where the doctors told them to go walk. Because even though people would want to walk in town, it's very hard with having no sidewalks. You'll see people walking with a stick just in case of a dog. We do have that dog problem here in Kettleman.
Ms. BETH CAFFREY (Humane Education Director, Central California SPCA): Brown pit, appearing to be aggressive, dark brown.
Unidentified Woman: This is the SPCA Animal Shelter. All lines are busy at this time.
Ms. CAFFREY: In Fresno County, we have probably one of the biggest dog bite areas.
I'm Beth Caffrey with the Central California SPCA. We started working with Fresno County, helping neighborhoods' programs, finding out why people don't exercise as much, why they don't go outside. There's a lot of stray dogs and animal packs that make people nervous about going out into their own neighborhood.
A lot of people get animals because there's so much theft. Sometimes, they want to have the toughest dogs. It's typically tied to gangs that are fighting their dogs.
(Soundbite of barking)
Mr. KEITH PADGETT (SPCA, Fresno): There is a large amount of gang activity here in Central California.
My name is Keith Padgett, SPCA, Fresno, California. The most prevalent is the bulldogs. Gang members have taken out Fresno State mascot as their symbol.
Ms. ISLAS-HOOKER: Gang food, I would describe it as munchie food - if you're smoking marijuana, you might want some chips and sodas. I don't think they're eating their five fruits and vegetables a day, unfortunately.
That young boy in (unintelligible), on his way to get some milk at a convenience store, was shot. Gang culture has been affecting the food environment. It made it inhospitable just to walk to go to get some milk.
When community members are telling us, you know, I don't want my children out, I drive them to school, even though it's two blocks away, it's, first, some very real issues.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MARIA PENA: My name is Maria Pena. The Greenfield Walking Club in Bakersfield, we started three years ago. We're trying to teach each other how to eat healthy, exercise.
Ms. ISLAS-HOOKER: These women wanted to form a walking group in Bakersfield. There was a park but there was gang activity happening there - loose dogs, syringes. They began to talk with the city council members. Lights got repaired; graffiti got removed. These women raised money to establish a walking path around the park.
In Lindsay, a small rural community, they have Friday night market. There's food, activities for kids, dance, music, produce vendors. They've had a reduction in crime.
Ms. PENA: Friday night, families are here, the husbands, the kids and they're dancing, they're eating. Any other day, there's nobody around town.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ISLAS-HOOKER: As long as people are indoors because of their fear, they won't come out. If we created more forums where neighbors could meet each other — days in the park, farmers markets, community gardens, environments that promote a healthy lifestyle — there's real power when the community members themselves advocate for these changes.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Hidden Kitchens is produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. The Kitchen Sisters' new book is "Hidden Kitchens: Texas." And you can see a slideshow of the Greenfield Walking Group at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.