In what is known to be the most polluted zip code in California, Doña Tomasa Garcia operates a 5-acre farm growing fresh prickly-pear cactus pads, or nopales, in addition to radishes, cucumbers, broccoli and citrus. Aside from the intricate demarcation of the fields with rows of tall prickly pear, her farm is only distinguishable by a small hand-painted sign hanging near her tidy white bungalow that reads “Se Vende Nopales”: “Cactus for Sale”.

In Doña Tomasa’s neighborhood of Southwest Fresno, the ethnically diverse community residing there faces some of the worst health outcomes in the state. The neighborhood is considered a Rural Food Desert by the USDA[1]. This means that despite the agricultural productivity of commodity crops in the local area, families bear an inordinate burden in accessing a grocery store for their basic food needs, let alone fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables. This disparity increases the incidences of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic food-related illness.

Preliminary research shows that nopales  can decrease blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes. The bright, tangy pads are full of fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids in addition to its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Nopales are native to the Americas and are one of the most ancient documented foods of Latin America. There are countless ways to prepare them, but the tender pads of nopal are easily eaten grilled on the open stove-top sprinkled, with salt, lime, and a dash of chili and served with warm tortillas.

In a recent report conducted in Fresno by California Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Pesticide Regulation surveyed 7 markets and 5 wholesale distributors and found that some of the produce from the wholesalers previously carried low-level illegal pesticide residues [2]. One of the imported crops containing the highest levels of pesticide residues is nopales that are imported from Mexico.  Likely due to the dangerous spines on the plants, it is difficult to pull weeds and remove pest damage with hands, so large nopal farmers will use a vast quantity of chemicals to manage those challenges.

Doña Tomasa, on the other hand, operates her farm with, in her words, “God’s grace”: no fertilizers or pesticides. She owns a small well and a miniature tractor for her plot and provides work for a few family members on her field. She works in the city of Fresno providing social services for the poor, in addition to running her farm with her family. She sells fresh nopales to those who notice her sign and stop by.

[1] Food Access Research Atlas. United States Department of Agriculture

[2] Fresno Initiative Report. California Environmental Protection Agency. 2015.