Norma Barragan recalls that, growing up in South Merced, her family’s small home was, at times, extra crowded.
Her nieces and nephews lived with them, putting 10 people in a three-bedroom house, because their own home life had been disrupted by substance abuse and hunger.
Barragan, now a 37-year-old mother herself, recalled that time as “tough,” “hard” and “chaotic.”
In an area like Merced, where poverty and its related problems are endemic, Barragan’s story is a familiar one.
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Children in Merced County and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley are more likely to grow up in stressful environments compared to other areas in the state, according to a study by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
More often than not, children living in the Valley lack access to fresh and healthy food, safe drinking water and are exposed to violence and harmful levels of air pollution.
If you’re stressed out at home because you don’t know how to pay the light bill or put food on the table and children are listening to all of it, that’s going to affect them.
Norma Barragan, parent outreach specialist with Merced County Office of Education
“If you're stressed out at home because you don't know how to pay the light bill or put food on the table and children are listening to all of it, that’s going to affect them,” said Barragan, a parent outreach specialist with the Merced County Office of Education. “You see that so much here.”
The report, “California’s San Joaquin Valley: A Region and its Children Under Stress,” looks at how four components – early education, land-use planning, access to healthy food and living environments – can help address the stressful environments.
Many people aren’t aware of the health disparities in the San Joaquin Valley, said Chet P. Hewitt, CEO of the private Sierra Health Foundation, which supports health-related activities in Northern California and helped fund the study. The communities on the California coast are known for their technology and innovation and often are seen as the “statewide perspective.”
“It’s an assumption that all Californians are prospering at the same time,” Hewitt said. “Who would think in California in 2017 that one in four schools in the San Joaquin Valley don't have access to clean drinking water? That’s kind of shocking.”
Lack of access to healthy foods or healthy living environments are the two main issues affecting Merced County, said Tsia Xiong, executive director of the Merced Organizing Project.
“The Central Valley has been forgotten for so long,” Xiong said. “We’re one of the fourth-largest producers of agriculture and yet our county has always been the highest in poverty. There's a huge contradiction.”
In Merced County, 29 percent of children under age 18 live in households with limited or uncertain access to food, according to data from the report. Almost 80 percent of children in the county are eligible for a subsidized school meal program.
The Central Valley has been forgotten for so long. ... We’re one of the fourth-largest producers of agriculture and yet our county has always been the highest in poverty. There’s a huge contradiction.
Tsia Xiong, executive director of Merced Organizing Project
Living with such instability can have real consequences on one’s health, the study notes. Children experiencing food insecurities are more likely to develop asthma, have more behavioral problems and perform worse on reading and math tests in elementary school, according to the report.
When children are insecure about where their next meal is coming from, their bodies are going to try to conserve every calorie, said Theresa Ng, pediatrician at Golden Valley Health Centers. As a result, kids tend to overeat because they don’t know when they’ll have their next meal.
These issues correlate with obesity, Ng said. Children aren’t focusing or caring about the importance of healthy food because what’s important is survival, she said.
At times, Barragan would find that her nieces and nephews had stashed food under the beds or in the closets because “they never wanted to starve again.”
“It was hard telling them, ‘you’re not going to have to go through that again,’” Barragan said.
A change in family dynamics, like frequent job changes, loss of jobs, an abrupt move or birth of a new sibling, can all create stress for children, Ng said
“Children can sense these things,” she said. “Stress is our body’s way to respond to negative circumstances. It can really impair children’s behavioral development and emotional development.”
Barragan said children who’ve experienced stress interact with others differently.
“Having a relationship with them is kind of tough,” she said. “They’re closed off. I’ve seen that with a lot of youth who have been in traumatic events: They’re isolated and not very social.”
The purpose of the study was not only to show the problems in a region that is overlooked by many, Hewitt said, but to rally community groups, elected officials and policy makers to take action.
“It is a regional issue,” Hewitt said. “Good health and economic policy benefits us all. We believe we should go in communities that are furthest behind.”
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486