Farm Workers In Peril

By: Rich Rodriguez

No water, no work. That's the ripple effect from a three year drought and only a trickle of federal irrigation water.{} In the westside communities of Firebaugh and Mendota, food lines have become a common sight.{} But in the heart of the food and fiber basket for the world, locals wonder if the lines are here to stay?

It's just after eight on a Friday morning in Firebaugh. {} Hungry people have been standing in line since 4:30am. Judy Breeden told me, "I've lived here 63 years in Firebaugh. {} My husband was a farmer and{}I never saw this.

It seems most of the faces in the crowd share one common bond. {} They can't find work. {} In an ag based economy Firebaugh's unemployment rate is 24 percent.{} Mendota is much worse at 38 percent. {} John Claudio has been laid off twice by ag employers.{} He says "a lot of people get embarrassed. {} There's no need. {} Hey hard times are hard times."

Dana Wilkie with the Community Food Bank has had a front of the line view of people in need. Governor schwarzenegger's executive order is responsible for twice a month food giveaways in four Fresno County communities.{} She says it's pretty bittersweet.{} On one hand were getting them through the line quickly.{}We've really mastered the process.{} The sad thing is we are having to say goodbye to these folks."

The emergency money ran out at the end of October, but the food bank has partner pantries that distribute food but nothing compared to this.{}{} Betty Medley says{}it's gonna help{}her out a lot.{}{}She intends to{}spread it out because{}she needs food{}right now because of the water situation.

In neighboring Mendota there's no work but the music plays on.{} It's common to see men who are unemployed stand around all day and talk.{} At Westside Grocery{}there's a steady stream of customers who come to pay their bills. Owner Joseph Riofrio says "basically I've been reduced to being a payment center and occasional movie video rental. {} That's cause people here don't have money."

The Riofrio Family has owned Westside Grocery since the 1940's.{} It used to have a deli and meat section. {} Now{}it features snacks and soda pop.{} He's not optimistic.{} "I honestly believe this is gonna be the hardest winter the town in history has ever seen. {} After that in the spring and summer if we get that zero allotment or 10 percent. I think a lot of people are gonna leave this area."

But there are a few bright spots for Mendota.{} A 49-million dollar federal prison is scheduled to open next year.{} It will employ 350 people but half of its labor force may be brought in from other federal facilities.

Construction is also under on a 40 acre field of solar panels that will create a 5 megawatt crop of electricity.{} 60 people are building Cal-Renew-1 and at least half of the employees are local.

The music plays on in Mendota. {} Store owner Joseph Riofrio says the music represents a sign of hope in the Latino community.