Members of the Community Vision board of directors, accompanied by several staff members, went on a two-day fact-finding tour of the Central Valley in October, as part of our ongoing effort to deepen our impact in this region.  Board members met with community and small business leaders to learn about community issues and to discuss Community Vision’s program initiatives. They also conferred with Community Vision’s Central Valley Advisory Committee, a group of regional community development and social service experts who advise Community Vision on how to address the needs of low-income residents of this underserved part of the state.

California’s Central Valley is plagued by increasing poverty, high unemployment, and an average income that is among the lowest in the country. The unemployment rate is currently stuck at 18.2 percent, and a report released by the U.S. Labor Department earlier this year shows that the valley accounts for six of the ten metropolitan areas with the worst unemployment rates in the country. As in many other cities with high unemployment, the rate of housing foreclosures in the Central Valley has skyrocketed: Stockton and Modesto have the third and fourth highest foreclosure rates of all cities in the U.S.

With the rise of poverty, unemployment and foreclosures, food insecurity has climbed in the Central Valley. Despite being one of the world’s leading producers of food, the Central Valley is home to one of America’s largest populations of people struggling to provide enough food for their families. Across California, the rate of food insecurity is 16.7 percent, but the rate of food insecurity in the Central Valley is as high as 23.2 percent. Second Harvest, a food bank that supplies food to 228 agencies in the Central Valley, reports a 30 percent increase in food requests over the last year.

Compounding these problems are issues unique to the rural, agricultural economy of the Central Valley. It contains many unincorporated communities, where people live with little or no local government. Most are farm workers and the very poor.  The farm laborers are overwhelmingly Mexican born and undocumented, with an increasing number coming from areas of Mexico where little Spanish is spoken. These workers are monolingual in their indigenous language.  Without the ability to speak Spanish or English, their prospects are limited and their needs are ignored or unknown.

Another distinct problem affecting many Central Valley communities is the poisoning of the groundwater by chemical fertilizers and animal waste. Many residents must obtain bottled water for drinking on top of paying for tap water for everything else. While community service districts or mutual water companies serve some of these places, many are too poor to invest in the engineering consultation needed to qualify for federal water and sewer improvement assistance.

The challenges facing California’s Central Valley are mitigated by a combination of complex factors.  Now more than ever, it is critical for Community Vision to continue our work in the Central Valley and help alleviate some of the difficulties facing these communities. We look forward to sharing what we learned on our tour and our plan to address the growing needs of the Central Valley soon.