A Community Rising Up, Better than Ever

By Jason Wilson, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications at PHA

The theme of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month is “Todos Somos, Somos Uno: We Are All, We Are One.” In celebration of that theme, we’re excited to bring you the story of one community in California’s Central Valley that exemplifies unity and resiliency.

Planada is a small, rural town outside of Merced, in California’s Central Valley. Chances are, if you have eaten a pistachio or almond recently, it came from somewhere near Planada. In fact, 25% of our nation’s produce comes from this area of California, and Planada is where many of the people who care for, pick and process that produce live. But Merced County, where Planada is located, also has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. The injustice is that, in a place surrounded with produce, the families that live and work there don’t have affordable access to it.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Planada to launch the Good Stuff Kiosk at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School, in partnership with Dole, the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, and the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County.

It’s a small, moveable refrigerated kiosk that sits along shelf stable staple foods and a video screen that shares recipes and cooking tips. The kiosk provides accessible and affordable meals to families while they’re coming to pick up their kids from afterschool programs hosted by the Boys & Girls Clubs.

*The Good Stuff Kiosk at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School in Planada, CA*

In a town dotted with just a few small convenience stores and where the closest grocery store is more than 20 minutes away, families will now not only have access to healthy foods, but also the education around how to shop for and prepare nutritious meals. Making sure children have access to healthy food is a huge passion and focus of José González, Superintendent of Planada Elementary School District, which houses Cesar E. Chavez Middle School. “I’ve always had a high motivation to serve the underserved,” says José, a lifelong resident of Merced County. Planada Elementary School District serves about 900 children, 98% of whom are Latino, a reflection of the makeup of the larger community. Because of this, José says he has the opportunity to “unapologetically celebrate the cultures and traditions” of the Latino community by ensuring that the food students receive is not only nutritious but also culturally relevant. Chef Alejandro Okida, the District’s Food Service Director, and his team provide the students with up to 5 meals a day - breakfast, lunch, supper and two snacks - each day with a different menu, cooked from scratch. Recent favorites included pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and carnitas made with local pork.

This January, severe flooding destroyed many homes in Planada. A lot of families didn’t have flood insurance and didn’t qualify for FEMA aid because they are undocumented immigrants, causing them to lose their homes and forcing them to start over. Though devastating, José says he was comforted to see that “human kindness rose to a peak” – the community received an outpouring of support from all over the country, and people banded together to rebuild. Part of that rebuilding was a new mural on the outside of Cesar E. Chavez Middle school, designed by students and painted by local artist Ruben Sanchez. It depicts civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in the middle, with a tiger (the school’s mascot) as his spirit animal, in addition to Dolores Huerta, with whom Chavez co-founded the United Farmworkers Association.

Mural outside of Cesar E. Chavez Middle School, designed by the students and painted by local artist Ruben Sanchez

The flood does not define this resilient community, though. As José put it, “we are rising up, better than ever.” Planada is a shining example of the joy food can bring to a community.

I arrived at the school just as lunch was finishing up, to see a delicious spread made by the school’s culinary arts students, donned in chef hats and coats. They were so proud to be serving their fellow students and guests. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them, and to be a part of PHA’s work to bring good food to all.

This one kiosk is just the beginning of a larger initiative to reach millions of children and help catalyze change towards good food and healthier communities. By 2028, the Good Stuff Kiosk program plans to grow to include more than 1,000 community hubs across the United States, with the potential to reach more than 3 million families each day.

If you’d like to support this necessary work, sign the Demand Food Equity Pledge now and follow along with the latest updates in the fight for good food.