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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Lush vegetables grow in this community garden at the corner of Langston and Jonah Streets in south Bakersfield.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

This cabbage in community garden at the corner of Langston and Jonah Streets in south Bakersfield is about ready to be picked and enjoyed.

Gema Perez says her southeast Bakersfield neighborhood doesn't have a lot of supermarkets, and the few there are either too expensive or have an extremely limited selection.

"When I want fruits and vegetables, I have to drive far away, or I go to a community garden where I grow my own," she said in Spanish through a translator.

So many Kern County residents say the same of their own neighborhoods that the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index recently ranked Bakersfield in the bottom 10 metro areas nationwide for access to fresh produce.

The ranking was based on interviews with 300 residents in 189 metro areas across the country over the two-year period from January 2012 through December 2013.

The survey asked, "In the city or area where you live, is it easy or not easy to get fruits and vegetables?"

In the Bakersfield area, 86.7 percent said it's easy to get them, placing the region in the bottom 10 nationally, ahead of only six other metropolitan areas.

The worst access was in Anchorage, Alaska, where 67.3 percent of respondents said it was easy to get produce.

The best access was in Olympia, Wash., with 96.6 percent saying yes.

While the ranking is poor in relative terms, nearly 87 percent of residents reporting a positive outlook is nothing to sneeze at, said Paul Hellman, principal planner for the city of Bakersfield.

"Our metro area is huge, and we have some very remote areas in Kern County where people live by choice that are not very well served," he said. "But within the urban parts of our metro area there are a huge number of places to buy fruits and vegetables, whether it's a supermarket or a big box retailer or the ethnic markets or farmer's markets.

"I just find it hard to believe anyone would have trouble finding places to shop within their means, unless they had very low income or no income."

The city hasn't had resources to encourage developers to build grocery stores since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies, Hellman added.

The poor national ranking is ironic, given the heavy presence of agriculture in and around Bakersfield, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. Often, the very people who say they can't afford produce are the ones who earn a living producing it for other people.

"That's why we've been working with people in communities like Greenfield, Shafter and Arvin to create community gardens so they can grow their own food," she said.

An added benefit is that in community gardens, those wary of pesticides can grow food free of chemicals.

"Organic produce is particularly expensive," Farrell said.

Perez has her own little subdivided plot near Greenfield Park where she grows lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, strawberries, kale, lemons and eggplant.

She estimates she spends a couple of hours a day there.

"It's less expensive this way," Perez said. "And the food is good, and fresh."

Mother of seven Esther Corona, 44, of Bakersfield, says she can't garden because she doesn't have the time or space for it.

Corona works in the fields harvesting grapes, and but for that, her large family would never eat them.

"At the end of a work day, if we have any extra bags of grapes that didn't make it for quality purposes, we are allowed to bring them home," she said in Spanish through a translator. "If I didn't have the opportunity to bring them home, I don't think I'd buy them at the store because they are too expensive.

"I have a friend who works harvesting oranges, and I give him a call during the season and ask if he could drop off a small sack of oranges for me so that I don't have to buy them at the store."

That's a common story among ag workers all over central California, said Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis.

Even in the nation's fruit basket, barriers to fresh fruits and vegetables need to be adddressed, she said.

Developers like to build supermarkets in densely populated affluent areas, Wadsworth said. As a result, poor neighborhoods tend to have smaller markets, and because foot traffic in such stores is slower, produce there sits on shelves longer and isn't as fresh.

Some cities are combating this by working with convenience markets that mostly sell liquor and tobacco to create small produce sections, Wadsworth said. Because those sections are little, the produce turns over more quickly and the quality is better, she said.

That also addresses another key barrier: physical proximity. Supermarkets may be few and far between in poor neighborhoods, Wadsworth said, but there are convenience stores all over the place.

Another strategy is to establish food distribution hubs in the Central Valley. Currently, most growers transport their yield to large cities such as Los Angeles and distribute it to stores from there.

"We need to get some smaller, local hubs closer to where the food is grown," Wadsworth said.

At the same time, Wadsworth said, the Gallup findings must be put in perspective. Agreeing with the city of Bakersfield's Hellman, she said the overwhelmingly positive response to Gallup's question was hardly a disaster.

"Eight-seven percent saying it's easy to find fruits and vegetables, that's not too bad," she said. "But of course we'd prefer it was 100 percent. We'd like everyone to be able to eat healthier."

-- Californian staff writer Laura Liera contributed to this report.