The Right to Food

California Senator Melissa Hurtado: “The younger generation has the most to lose in a system that fails to be sustainable”

Experts' corner - 26.10.2021

26 October 2021, Sanger, California- In this interview, Melissa Hurtado serving in the California State Senate shares few takeaways from her experience so far. She knows firsthand the importance of food and agriculture, and has advocated for issues that often go unheard in rich countries –such as access to clean water, right to food and poverty, inequalities or health care in rural communities.


Bolstering the interest of youth

Melissa Hurtado is the youngest woman ever elected to the California State Senate. As many young people, she herself has felt at times that her opinions were not taken seriously. How to unleash the abilities of youth and enable them to act as agents of change, particularly in the agri-food systems? In her view, they have to be provided with the right tools “to expand their current understanding and appreciate what they disagree with,” as well as educational resources to spark innovation. And last but not least, they have to truly be included in decision-making processes. “The younger generation has the most to lose in a system that fails to be sustainable,” she said.

“The younger generation has the most to lose 
in a system that fails to be sustainable”

 

California, home to immense wealth 

As a legislator who represents rural and impoverished communities in the Central Valley, it should not come as a surprise that much of Senator Hurtado´s work focuses on hunger.

It is true that for many of us, this is not the first issue that would come to mind when we think of California, but rather we think of Hollywood or Silicon Valley. Although California is one of the largest exporters of food around the world, one out of every four Californians does not know where their next meal will come from, according to the California Association of Food Banks. This is a growing reality in many high-income societies where, paradoxically, the double burden of obesity and hunger are increasing.

Hunger, at the top pf the political agenda

Several food assistance programmes have been created in California. The largest one is the federally-funded CalFresh, which provides low-income individuals with payment cards. If someone is using the card for locally grown food, they can earn an extra dollar for every dollar of produce purchased.

Likewise, with the purpose of promoting productivity and health, the state-funded Office of Farm to Fork connects consumers, schools, and others directly with California’s farmers and ranchers.

Giving kids the opportunity to grow up healthy is a main concern too--California has become the first state in the nation to announce it will offer universal, free school meals.

In the aftermath of COVID-19

During COVID-19, California stepped up efforts to ensure access to food assistance. The WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program and CalFresh were expanded. The Great Plates program was also created, providing older adults with daily meals delivered to their homes from local restaurants, which also kept businesses afloat at a time when they were struggling most. Following a dramatic upsurge in the use of food banks, California also activated the National Guard to assist with distribution.

Migrants, a vital part of communities 

“California can do better. I believe that food is a human right and, for more and more Californians, it is becoming harder to obtain,” asserted Senator Hurtado. Particularly for certain groups such as Black and Latino families with children, who experience even greater levels of hunger.

"I believe that food is a human right and, for more
and more Californians, it is becoming harder to obtain"
 

Undocumented immigrants are also most affected. A large portion of them are the farmworkers who harvest fruits and vegetables – declared essential workers during the pandemic. Yet they do not have enough to eat. California operates a program to provide food to non-citizens, but the eligibility requirements limit who has access.

That´s why Hurtado introduced the Comida Para Todos Act (Food for All), which will help those who do not quality for other California food programs, recognizing their important role for the economy and societies.

Policies, hand in hand with funds

But policies, plans and programs to combat food insecurity cannot be implemented without funding. And here is where government´s budget comes in. In California, it provides $6 million to support college students at public universities are newly eligible for CalFresh; an additional $5 million to individuals, regardless of immigration status; and perhaps, most importantly, $110 million to food banks to meet current and future demand. 

Food systems, at center stage

While these are great first steps, there is much more ahead. Policymakers need to understand what goes into ensuring people have food on their tables. Too often, food systems are taken for granted, when in reality, a monumental effort goes into the process," Senator Hurtado explained.

"Too often, food systems are taken for granted, when in reality,
a monumental effort goes into the process"
 

She has introduced legislation that would provide data on the relationships between agriculture, livestock, diseases and humans. This will give researchers a more comprehensive picture of how people are impacted by food systems to get a head start on addressing those pressures. She has also created a Select Committee on Human Security, to focus on the impacts that the environment, labor, food insecurity and health access have on Californians.

Farmworkers play a crucial role in these food systems. The best way for legislators to enact meaningful change is to uplift farmworkers and put in place initiatives that address their needs like a basic income or quality childcare, she underlined. In the end, solutions need to make affordable food more accessible.

Linkages between water, climate change and farmers

This summer, California’s Central Valley reached 115 F (46C). There is no doubt that climate change is in the spotlight for Senator Hurtado. Heatwaves occurred as communities also faced power and water outages. A failure to invest in infrastructure has created water scarcity for most impoverished communities, she stressed.

This particularly affects farmworkers who are at risk of losing employment.  The striking paradox here is that the Central Valley is California's most productive agricultural region. Inland farmers grow, pick and ship the food that the coastal, more economically prosperous regions, depend on and enjoy.

“The challenge is showing urban Californians why it matters to them that agricultural workers are running out of water,” she signaled. “They see climate change as an issue of tomorrow, while the poorest communities in California, and those throughout the world, are already experiencing it.” Consumers are beginning to see the price of groceries increase and goods that used to be plentiful, now difficult to find. Ultimately, people will notice when climate change affects them directly. This new awareness is an opportunity for policymakers to act, she concluded.

About Senator Melissa Hurtado

Melissa Hurtado is a member of the California State Senate. She represents Senate District 14, which is located in the Central Valley and includes the counties of Fresno, Bakersfield, Kings and Tulare. The District has a majority population Latinos, is key to the State’s agricultural production, and is largely comprised of rural communities.

Senator Melissa Hurtado was born to immigrant parents and grew up in the Central Valley. After earning her degree from California State University, Sacramento, she returned to the Valley. Senator Hurtado served on the Sanger City Council from 2016 until her election to the State Senate in 2018.

She was appointed Co-Chair of the Council of State Government's Economic and Workforce Health Subcommittee in 2021, Chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee, Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Human Security.

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