top of page

Fast Track to Fulfillment

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

The Changing Landscapes Of Agriculture, Industry, and Food Equity In California's Inland Empire

[A brief note: the ArcGIS maps are no longer functioning, please contact me with any inquiries about this missing content and I will do my best to share updated information with you.]

For years, I have lived in the middle of one of the country’s largest deserts. From a bird’s eye view, belts of sandy beige seem to extend into a distant horizon. But pale shimmering dunes and endless stretches of untamed land are not my reality, warehouses covering hundreds of square miles are—I live in a food desert.

Just southeast of California’s Central Valley, where the majority of the state’s produce is grown, the Inland Empire, or “IE,” peeks out from behind the San Bernardino Mountains. San Bernardino County and Riverside County below it, both densely populated in the southwest corner, have rich histories of agriculture and ranching but many residents suffer as a result of the current widespread prevalence of food deserts—urban areas where it is difficult to buy affordable and high quality fresh food.

The accessibility of fresh food is not an isolated issue. To paint a fuller picture of food inequity in the Inland Empire, it is key to understand the region’s distinct agricultural history and its evolution into the industrialized landscape of the present. By interacting with maps that weave the presence of third party logistics (3PL) warehouses into environmental and social factors, food access in the Inland Empire may be better understood as a composite issue that has developed over many decades. To create these maps, I utilized ArcGIS software, supermarket accessibility data from Esri, demographics from the federal government, and results from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s CalEnviroScreen 4.0, a tool used to identify communities that are disproportionately impacted by multiple sources of pollution. Color-coded markers on each of the maps pinpoint California locations of the nation’s five highest-grossing third-party logistics companies’ warehouses (including C.H. Robinson, Expeditors, UPS Supply Chain Solutions, Kuehne + Nagel, and Amazon, which is left off of some lists because of its hybrid business model). Awareness of food inequity as a symptom of these other factors is an important step in untangling the roots of hunger.

As long as the Inland Empire has existed, people have relied upon local land to sustain themselves. But as agricultural diversity was supplanted for monoculture in the mid-1800s, a violent history of human displacement ran parallel. Season after season, Americans uprooted the lives of innumerable Indigenous families. While being denied their autonomy, Indigenous practitioners of agricultural traditions were expected to maintain the health of the land that was no longer respected as their own. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, one band of the Serrano, has stated that in the mid-1800s, Indigeneous members of the Serrano nation and others were forced to build a zanja, diverting water from the Santa Ana River and Mill Creek with an irrigation channel intended to expand local agricultural production. For many decades, the population and agriculture increased—growth fueled by Indigenous labor. As the Inland Empire continued to draw new residents with that old familiar Dream of social mobility and self-determination—now a distant mirage in the High Desert—agriculture became a lucrative industry.

Immigrants seeking a fresh start found work in the Inland Empire. But they appeared a prime target for farmers and ranchers seeing dollar signs. The state gradually became a massive exporter of the nation’s produce, with a whopping third of the country's vegetables and three-quarters of the country's fruits and nuts being grown in California as of 2021, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The challenges of tough work with low pay, unforgiving heat, and little job security were met with frequency in the area as many other jobs remained inaccessible to those who did not have a college education or speak English as a first language. And as industrialization and automation began to creep into every facet of American life, the labor provided by one person was treated as more and more disposable.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that roughly 7,300 residents of the IE had farming, fishing, and forestry jobs in 2021. Agricultural and environmental jobs, as well as the local land they relied on, have been supplanted by hundreds of warehouses that operate the newly dominant logistics industry in the Inland Empire. Warehouses in the area now employ over 27 times as many people as the agricultural industry, a number that includes some of the many logistics industry jobs such as packing and sorting but does not include the full network of residents involved, such as those in transportation. According to the nonprofit Warehouse Worker Resource Center, as of 2022, “More than 200,000 people work inside of warehouses in the Inland Empire Metro area—at least 40,000 of them for Amazon alone. That means one in ten working residents works in a warehouse and one in five warehouse workers works for Amazon.”

Dr. Yen Ang is chair of the Food Rescue Anti-Hunger Coalition and Vice President of Health for start-up Tangelo, a company that fights for food justice nationwide. Dr. Ang is an expert on food accessibility, community health, and government in the Inland Empire. With over a decade of experience in public health and community service to her name, Dr. Ang’s perspective is informed by work in many different sectors—ones that do not ordinarily collaborate.

“We’ve got to have a healthy balance between investment versus quality of life, right?” Dr. Ang asks rhetorically. “Amazon does bring that glimmer of hope. But at the same time, I think it's also the responsibility of the local governor or government to work with those big investment companies, private or public, to see what ways they can also do their social responsibility.”

Dr. Yen Ang (right) hugs Marsha Olguin of Mary's Mercy Center (left)

after meeting to discuss upcoming food distribution events

Dr. Ang hopes that these larger investments will ultimately filter down to the people living in these communities, offering more resources and greater support in access to basic needs.

The promise of jobs is an alluring one, especially when the barrier to entry is more flexible for those with diverse levels of educational attainment. The 2020 Census estimated that in San Bernardino County, roughly 21% of residents over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher—14% and 12% lower than the state and national averages, respectively. In Riverside County, 23% were college graduates.

For many without bachelor’s degrees, jobs in industries like logistics have low barriers to entry into the workforce. That used to be a strength of the agricultural industry in the IE. “Every family should have the opportunity to access good employment,” Dr. Ang argues. “Because when you give people a job, it's not just a paycheck that people look forward to every two weeks. It's also the sense of dignity, a sense of empowerment, right? A sense of sovereignty.”

These jobs may be easier to get than most, but the treatment of workers as replaceable is made nearly unbearable with “low pay, illness-inducing heat, and brutal working conditions,” says the Warehouse Worker Resource Center’s website. In a recent initiative, workers from KSBD, one of Amazon’s air hubs, organized as Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, “demanding an increase in pay, safe working conditions, and an end to retaliation.” These requests have surfaced after a long battle against the facility, with questions arising about the effects of 1,568 diesel-fueled truck trips a day and 26 daily cargo plane flights on the surrounding low-income neighborhoods.

Warehouse jobs are under threat of automation in the Inland Empire, as an internal Amazon memo leaked to Recode suggested. With warehouse jobs nearly rivaling the number of county jobs in San Bernardino County and Riverside County,, many could be affected. But this is unfortunately far from the only consequence of the logistics industry’s presence in the region, and Amazon is one of many parties responsible. The diesel particulate matter emitted by trips to and from distribution centers further exacerbates ozone pollution in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. In the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air Report, San Bernardino and Riverside counties ranked first and second worst for ozone pollution in the United States and both in the top ten for the worst annual particle pollution.

I created the map below using results from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s CalEnviroScreen 4.0, a tool used to identify communities that are disproportionately impacted by multiple sources of pollution. Many indicators including particle pollution, contaminated water, toxic releases, ozone, and more comprise the pollution burden of a given census tract. The pollution burden and population demographics combined make up the overall CalEnviroScreen scores. In the map below, the regions where warehouses are located, specifically in the Inland Empire, tend to have the highest pollution burden scores. They also tend to be in low-income neighborhoods. Because nutrition is a part of a larger picture, adverse health effects caused by pollution can pile up when hunger or diet-related diseases from a lack of proper nutrition are added to the equation.

Enviroscreen Results and Third Party Logistics (3PL) Warehouses in California

In the broader region of Southern California, coastal cities with the best air quality rely most on Amazon for shopping, with the highest rates of sales per household. Even given the Inland Empire’s location away from the sea and its high pollution burden, the ozone levels are shocking. Nearly all of the San Bernardino and Riverside country metropolitan areas are in one of the darkest red categories in the map below, indicating extremely high concentrations of ozone in the air, which can worsen asthma, make lungs more susceptible to toxins, and degrade the health of soil.

This is no coincidence. By looking at the distribution of warehouses throughout California, it becomes immediately clear that the densest concentrations of the top-grossing third-party logistics warehouses are found in the Inland Empire. The ozone concentration in these regions is also the highest.

Ozone and Third Party Logistics (3PL) Warehouses in California

Ozone affects more than just the atmosphere way above our heads—it affects the soil fertility too. According to NASA project Earth Observatory, “Plants that are exposed to high ozone concentrations metabolize less carbon dioxide, so less carbon is available in the soil, and fewer soil microbes grow and thrive.” In addition, the other sources of pollution, such as groundwater threats, lead exposure, and pesticide use can have lasting impacts on the water supply as they trickle through the soil. For two counties with longstanding histories of agriculture, degrading the health of the soil with improperly regulated land development and high ozone concentrations comes with high stakes.

Jorge Heredia looking out of the window from one of the Garcia Center's many art rooms

An impassioned advocate for gardening, community-buidling, and self-reflection, Jorge Heredia of the Garcia Center for the Arts, in San Bernardino, knows better than anybody the power of healthy soil. As the current director, he has been teaching residents of the IE how to garden and cultivate their personal understanding of the land. “I think there's many lessons to be learned as you garden,” Heredia said. “But you're also building a relationship as well with your food, with what nourishes you. You're building a relationship with the ground underneath you.” He spends many days in the painted eden of the Garcia Center garden, planting taro with the kids of nonprofit Young Samoa, encouraging them and any other visitors to make connections between their food and the network of labor that go into producing their food.

As someone who used to work in a warehouse, Heredia is acutely aware of how communities are impacted by their rhetoric and supporting infrastructure. “I came to the point where I was like, what am I doing with my life?” He recalled, naming the isolation-induced distance he felt from his land, food, self, and neighborhood a “ripple effect of disconnection.” He took up gardening to manage his sense of isolation and felt the healing impacts of the process immediately.

Jorge Heredia wandering through the garden, explaining the banana leaf recipes he hoped to make

The Garcia Center welcomes visitors of all backgrounds to learn about gardening and take produce home, but most families require more than a small bag of produce to feed their family for a week. Grocery stores are few and far between in the Inland Empire. As entire neighborhoods are converted into warehouses and highways, residents are left wondering what infrastructure is designed to support their basic needs. The desire for self-reliance is strong, and resource-sharing neighbors like Heredia and Prime Hendrix of Dae Gardens who teach residents how to garden while building community offer unique opportunities to connect in more ways than one. Their work is critical in the two counties, particularly for neighborhoods near the warehouses, which tend to have extremely limited access to grocery stores. For those without transportation, a trip for fresh produce is nearly unattainable in the intense afternoon heat.

Amazon Warehouses and Food Deserts in California

Without a vehicle to drive down miles of highway, there are often no conceivable options for purchasing fresh food. Because both food deserts and warehouses are most commonly found in low-income neighborhoods, the misuse of healthy land for miles of warehoused packing and shipping can greatly exacerbate pre-existing barriers to accessing healthy food. Of the companies included, many warehouses seem to to be entirely bordered with red dots—symbols of low-income census tracts in the map above. As these warehouses occupy land that could be used to meet the basic needs of residents in nearby neighborhoods, they continue to degrade the soil beneath them and the air above them.

If nearby pantries are closed for the day or they do not have fresh food in stock, gardening can offer a labor-intensive but cost-effective remedy. The autonomy and sustainability fostered by gardening are tremendous, but they do not offer a complete solution. Some are able to receive what Dr. Ang refers to as “emergency” services—the band-aid solutions necessary to maintain the health and well-being of those between reliable sources of food. But these experiences do not always often build dignity and self-sufficiency as people grapple with shame and some of the many other psychological challenges of hunger.

Dr. Yen Ang outside of partner organization in food distribution, Mary's Mercy Center

One of Dr. Ang’s creative solutions to combat this was to create the Food Rescue Anti-Hunger Network, “a platform so people can meet and network and at the same time share resources, ideas, and practices.” By drawing on collective support for hunger-related challenges, Dr. Ang and her network of over 500 participants have effectively problem-solved across agencies and barriers. Because this network does not exclude participants because of their location, race, income, religion, or otherwise, it engages a different audience than many government assistance programs do.

For those who need consistent support, who are out of a job, or who simply want higher quality nutrition, the federal food assistance program SNAP serves roughly 42 million Americans, but many need help and are left out of the benefits due to income and immigration status. In California, between 690,000 and 840,000 residents are income eligible for CalFresh food but are excluded due to their immigration status.

Jorge Heredia setting up at the picnic tables of the Garcia Center garden

That’s where mutual aid efforts, non-governmental organizations, start-ups, and other creative approaches to food equity come into play. While building dignity, relationships, and respect for the environment, these food heroes offer unique solutions for rebuilding communities while prioritizing their fellow neighbors’ hopes and needs. As the presence of the agriculture industry has faded, values have disappeared—values of diversity, autonomy, and sustainability. Warehouses are replacing our land, neighbors, and communities, leaving residents without jobs or access to healthy options. The fight to eradicate food deserts is anything but simple. But we must address hunger on a communal and structural level as we untangle food inequity in all its complexity. And we must be patient with ourselves and one another. “Building a relationship comes with time, you know, it's not an overnight thing…” Heredia says to me, smiling. “You have to consistently be there for the community.”

This story is part of the local environmental reporting initiative Unfiltered IE that is supported by the civic media project The Listening Post Collective and funded by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation.


bottom of page