Tulare County is one of the larger counties that make up the agricultural-based area of the Golden State, which thrives off of the crops that are harvested year-round through the back-breaking labor of field workers. It is also the poorest of all counties in California.
There is a great abundance of produce grown here in the Valley. Despite this abundance, a quiet pandemic has found its way into the homes of friends, neighbors and families, sometimes including our own. It’s called hunger.
A classroom at Mission Oak High School may have found a solution. Mr. Mendoza, the “Cultural History of the United States” teacher, challenged his students to create a class project that in some way could improve Mission Oak High School and the surrounding community. This challenge was part of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors’ “Step Up Youth Challenge” grant program. After conducting extensive research, the students found information about hunger in the Valley that was too alarming to ignore. The class decided it was time to help their community fight food insecurity and restore hope to those in need.
They found that there was already an existing organization that had already taken up this cause. “Be Healthy Tulare” is a grass-roots organization that was co-founded three years ago by Tulare Union math teacher David Terrel and his wife, Dr. Sarah Ramirez, a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The goal of Be Healthy Tulare is to cultivate a healthier Tulare County through compassion, community building, education and, most importantly, service.
The two community organizers developed a series of programs that caught the attention of the class of students at Mission Oak. The first is a free community garden that was created on an empty lot in Pixley in order to provide fresh fruits and vegetables that otherwise would not be accessible to impoverished families. It was a perfect opportunity for Mr. Mendoza’s class because 40 percent of the students at Mission Oak live in Pixley.
Another program created by Be Healthy Tulare is “Tulare County Harvest” which asks homeowners with fruit trees to consider donating excess fruit to Tulare County’s food bank. TC Harvest then organizes a trained volunteer group and caravans throughout Tulare County to pick fruit trees, providing homeowners the fruit they want to keep and the ability to donate the rest.
The students were so excited to help fight hunger that they named their class project “Harvesting Hope.” For the past three months, the students have kept themselves occupied at the Pixley garden on Saturdays and with TC Harvest on Sundays. Recently, the Harvesting Hope students made school-wide presentations that informed their peers of the impact of hunger in their community, encouraging students such as Estevan Barajas to step up and make a difference.
Now, Harvesting Hope has rapidly expanded from a classroom project to a community-wide campaign to support Be Healthy Tulare in providing nutritional food that is distributed to families in need throughout Tulare County. Barajas described his first experience picking fruit with Harvesting Hope as being “fun, positive, fulfilling, and a great experience to help support the community and the people we grew up with.”
The contribution being made by students at Mission Oak High School was described by Dr. Ramirez as “very moving being able to witness young people be a part of a great cause that gives back to the community. Through a rippling effect, the ‘planted seed’ will grow little by little in our homes and community as a whole so that someday real world problems may be solved through the help of education.”
These past two Sundays, Be Healthy Tulare and Harvesting Hope held their largest events to date. A local farmer had donated a five-acre crop of tangerines to the food bank. The two organizations worked together to bring over 170 volunteers, mostly students from Mission Oak High School, to come and harvest the fruit. In the two days of picking, they brought in over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to the food bank. Over the past three months, with the generosity of local homeowners donating their backyard fruit, they have exceeded 20,000 pounds.
Antonio Rodriguez, the assistant superintendent for the Tulare Joint Union High School District, grew up in the Central Valley and had experience as a field worker when he was a teenager. He recalled having worked long, hot, tiring hours out of necessity to help support his family. He came out to support Harvesting Hope for the very first time, describing the sight as, “fantastic seeing community members coming together to help those in need by simply volunteering some of their time on a Sunday morning. It’s really fulfilling to see such a large group of young individuals giving back to their community.”
Harvesting Hope has, in turn, provided hope by inspiring “people who are complete strangers to work side by side willing to commit to service to help the needy in the community,” as Dr. Ramirez said.
Many of the adults and some students who volunteer have worked with their families in the surrounding fields. Emma Onsurez, a first-time volunteer, described her childhood experience in the fields as being “hot, terrible, tiresome and very hard due to the back-breaking labor of climbing trees in order to fill the bags on your shoulders with fruit while having to balance yourself.” She also mentioned that this is a good opportunity for young people to experience firsthand the true value of having an education and learning to appreciate what they have.
Richard Purugganan is a senior at Mission Oak High School in Tulare, who plans to attend COS and continue at a CSU. He will be the first in his family to attend college.