The year 2015 marks the fourth year of a drought in California. With no signs of the drought improving, communities in California are left to prioritize their water usage. In the Central Valley, the limited water supply has forced farmers to prioritize on acreage and planting, decisions that trickle down and may impact farmworker families.


The purpose of this study was to explore the impact of a drought in California on family decision-making and coping strategies in the context of broader community changes affecting rural families of Mexican-origin.


This study recruited participants from the Niños Sanos, Familia Sana (NSFS, Healthy Children, Healthy Family) childhood obesity intervention study, conducted from 2011-2015. The primary occupation of two-thirds of the NSFS families was agricultural work. Based on the US Department of Agriculture 18-item food security assessment tool, a baseline household survey among 336 families in 2012 revealed that 45% of the households were food insecure. In 2015, a bilingual graduate student moderated four focus groups in a convenience sample of 26 NSFS families, who were recruited by promotoras (local lay workers). Males and females were assigned to different focus group discussions, each of which lasted 1 ½ hours. Two researchers reviewed transcriptions of the audio recordings and analyzed them for emerging themes.


In this Mexican-origin rural population, households headed by less educated mothers, older fathers, and adults engaged in farm work were most vulnerable to food insecurity. The focus groups revealed community changes including out-migration of families, increased food prices, and changes in employment (fewer hours, less predictable, need to travel further to find work). These changes have led families to shift their family decision-making and economize to cope with the unpredictable nature of the agricultural workforce. Paying bills and rent takes priority over food, clothing, medicine and other expenses. All groups mentioned having to deny child requests and family outings. Women noted increased stress on the family and concern about keeping families together. Men expressed the desire to avoid disruption to their children’s lives but were actively considering moving elsewhere. As a community, they have remained united and working together to withstand the challenges the drought has introduced.

Key Take Away Points

  • In this Mexican-origin rural population, households headed by less educated mothers, older fathers, and adults engaged in farm work were most vulnerable to food insecurity.
  • Mexican-origin parents reported stress, sadness, and feelings of incompetency in having to deny children’s requests and spend time away from home looking for work.
  • The resiliency and grit of these families are assets that should be utilized to distribute emergency resources more efficiently and to help rural communities adapt to the environmental and economic changes related to the drought.

Author Biography

Lizette Rodriguez is currently a Masters of Science student in Nutritional Biology in the Department of Nutrition at the University of California (UC) in Davis. Her work in food insecurity, along with other challenges farmworkers face, has contributed to her vision of serving as a physician in the Central Valley. As the daughter of immigrant farm-working parents, Lizette Rodriguez is driven to highlight the challenges her fellow farmworkers face daily. Lucia Kaiser, Ph.D. RD, is a Cooperative Extension Nutrition Specialist, affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and located in the UC Davis Nutrition Department. Also affiliated with UC ANR, Dorina Espinoza, Ph.D., and Marcel Horowitz, MS MCHES, are Cooperative Extension advisors, serving Humboldt, Del Norte, Lake, and Mendocino Counties (Espinoza) and Yolo County (Horowitz). Dr. Alberto Aguilera completed his doctorate in Nutritional Biology with a designated emphasis in International and Community Nutrition and currently is a postdoctoral fellow in the UC Davis Nutrition Department. Dr. Adela de la Torre is a faculty member in Chicano(a) Studies, has expertise in economics, and currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UC Davis.


The authors thank Ivan Garcia and the whole field team for assistance with data collection, focus group recruitment, and help with facilitating the focus groups. We would also like to thank the families in the Central Valley for sharing their unique stories. The material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2011-68001-30167. This study was partially supported by the funding of the Center of Poverty and Research at the University of California, Davis.