July 31, 2019 | By Vicky Espinoza

Next Generation 2019 – Solving the Food Production and Poverty Paradox in California’s San Joaquin Valley

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2019 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2019, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

Imagine the golden, dusty ground and the blistering sun above. Imagine a little girl, her hair disheveled, wearing a dirty purple dress and bare footed. Imagine her feeling of thirst…her lips cracked like the bare soil she stands on and her mouth parched. Imagine her hunger…her stomach grumbles as she has not eaten for days. Imagine she cannot bathe because the water coming out of her faucet is a dark, caramel brown and is too toxic to touch, let alone drink. Imagine that she cannot eat because her parents must spend the little money they have on bottled water.  Imagine this little girl cannot run around freely because she suffers from asthma caused by poor air quality. You might imagine this little girl lives in South Asia or Latin America. This isn’t imaginary. This little girl could be from East Porterville, Dos Palos or Tranquility, small communities in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, California. The San Joaquin Valley is four million people strong and is the most agriculturally productive region in the state—it produces 400 different commodities and contributes to two percent of the nation’s economic revenue. Yet, the San Joaquin Valley has the highest percentage of children living in poverty. There are about 525 disadvantaged communities that are predominantly Hispanic/Latino that do not have access to safe clean drinking water, are exposed to poor air quality, and lack access to healthy, affordable food. The agricultural laborers that spend long hours under the beating sun are unable to afford the food they help produce.

This is my personal connection to water, a connection rooted in the persistent environmental inequity in my backyard.

My research analyzes how the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will impact the retirement of more than ten percent of agricultural land to sustain groundwater resources and how land use changes will affect already socioeconomically vulnerable communities in the San Joaquin Valley. I am developing a geospatial optimization model that will provide a vision for strategizing how and where to retire large blocks of land and suggest alternative land uses that will maximize benefits for the economy, the environment, farmers, and underrepresented communities. For me, it is important that my work is a collective vision between stakeholders, academics, and the agricultural communities, both farmers and residents in vulnerable communities. As Russ Webster, Founder and President of Grow to Market, stated “Farmers don’t work in a vacuum. Let’s focus less on changing their behavior and more on the systems—input supply, infrastructure, accessing finance and markets—they need to grow their business and deliver nutritious, sustainable foods to their family and community.” Part of the conversations and innovation solutions presented at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2019 Global Food Security Symposium demonstrated that collaboration and communication between stakeholders, innovators, scientists, and communities produce solutions and products that are tailored to the issues in a community. They also demonstrated that collaborative solutions were well-adopted and accepted by the communities that voiced and contributed their visions and needs.

Being a Next Generation Delegate provided the opportunity to be a part of the conversation on global water scarcity and food security with a diverse group of professionals from all over the world that share different experiences, stories, and perspectives on working toward sustainable food security and water scarcity solutions. This opportunity reminded me that often it can be easy to get caught up in resolving the issues in one’s own backyard and dismiss the need for action on a global scale. The Global Food Security Symposium was a platform to break out of this thinking and understand water and food issues through a holistic lens. Beth Dunford, Deputy Coordinator at Feed the Future, stated that “You cannot talk about food without talking about water, and you cannot talk about water without talking about food.” Understanding the relationships and interdependencies between food, water, energy, governance, and social systems are important in order to be able to completely assess the tradeoffs between solutions and decisions being made. The agricultural sector needs to be at the forefront of addressing global water scarcity issues, which can be accomplished through collaborative efforts among countries and communities, innovative solutions, and cutting edge research that aims to solve water and food security issues sustainably and collaboratively.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.