All this week, KCBS Radio brings you stories of one of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic: the people who grow, harvest and pack our food. In part one of this special series, Kathy Novak rides along with a nonprofit manager who pivoted his mission as needs changed.
On a hot and smoky Saturday, Armando Valdez is driving around the heart of the Central Valley's farmland.
He runs Fresno's Community Center for the Arts and Technology, which offers free classes in everything from music to drone tech.
But the nonprofit had to close because of the pandemic.
"We were like, you know what? My kids out there are going to need us," he told KCBS Radio. "So I just started going to their homes and, yeah, we started finding all kinds of things."
In April, he started checking up on farmworker families with his colleague, Jenny Rodriguez.
"Armando and I witnessed ourselves, a bus goes by with farmworkers in it," she told KCBS Radio. "The bus driver has a mask on…but every worker inside packed like sardines in this big bus, no masks. Nothing."
The center had sewing machines for dance costumes, so they started making and distributing masks. So far, they have handed out around 7,000 of them.
They discovered other problems too.
"We have found three camps of farmworkers that have been evicted during the pandemic," Valdez said. "They were evicted because they couldn’t pay their rent because there was no work."
He found other families were struggling to pay bills and keep up with distance learning.
"We started taking them school supplies and stuff. Then we started just grabbing food."
They packed food boxes for 15 families.
Then, Armando’s friends started donating their stimulus checks - about $17,000 worth of them.
"We started buying food, helping them with the rent, PG&E," he explained. "So it went from 15 families, now we have - oh my goodness - I want to say close to 1,000 families that we have served."
The first stop on his rounds today is a small community in Kerman.
Teenagers from the center, themselves children of farmworkers, have volunteered to help and hand out boxes and lay out donations on a table.
Sixty-six year old Petra found some shirts she can use working in the fields.
"I was telling her to take exactly what she needs," said Rodriguez. "This is exactly what my goal is: to help those that feed us."
Rodriguez was once a farmworker herself and tells Petra that she knows it’s hard - especially with the heat and smoke.
"Yes," agreed Petra. "But we have to work to live, pay rent, buy food."
In this series, we will meet people like Petra who are risking their health and even their lives picking and processing our food.
Many of them are undocumented.
"They are here illegally, right," said Rodriguez. "Their country didn’t provide for them, okay, I understand that. But I tell you what, they are out there doing the work that you aren't going to go out there and do. I’m not going to do it either. I used to do it. I am not going to go chop lettuce, pick onions. No way, Jose. Because it is tough work. It is hard work."
Part two will look at the pandemic’s devastating effect on the meatpacking industry in the Central Valley.