Finding Lost Hills
The Wonderful Company is one of America’s biggest agriculture operations, and the world’s largest farmer of tree crops. Our pomegranate, almond, pistachio, mandarin, and other citrus orchards cover 200 square miles of California’s Central Valley—a region that is home to 4,000 of our employees and their families.
The Central Valley is larger than nine states, but size is only one of the Valley’s defining characteristics: its alluvial soils and Mediterranean climate also make it one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. Yet while its soil is rich, the Central Valley is one of the poorest regions of the country. Many residents face a daily struggle with food insecurity, a glaringly unfair irony. And the Central Valley’s population, about 7.8 million, is growing rapidly.
Today, the teen pregnancy rate in Kern County is among the highest in California. Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure have soared to epidemic levels. Because the population is underrepresented and underserved, toxic dumps and other hazards litter the landscape, often dangerously close to where people live.
Lynda and Stewart Resnick’s generosity throughout Kern County is a fine example for us all. They care about helping underserved communities where their employees and families live and I’m grateful for their efforts.
Why Lost Hills?
The humble Kern County community of Lost Hills lies west of Interstate 5, along Highway 46. Our largest nut-growing and processing facility is just 13 miles outside of town, and more than half of Lost Hills households have one or more Wonderful employees in their families. We could have started our work in any one of several Central Valley communities where we have operations. We chose to focus on Lost Hills largely because of its size—it measures a little more than five square miles and has a population of 2,500—and the big impact our efforts could have in such a small town.
Making an impact begins at home
As one of the largest employers in the Central Valley, we felt we had to do something to help people across the region. We began the way we would for any other project: with thorough research. We pored over maps and visited town after town. We met with school boards, teachers and principals, county and state officials, sheriffs, fire departments, community activists, and other local leaders. We held often-emotional focus groups. We thought we knew what people would worry about most—poor air quality, disinterested government, or compromised water systems.
But when we met with people in local communities and listened to what they had to say, that wasn’t what we heard. The questions they asked were more universal: How can we keep our children safe? How do we provide a decent education, after-school and summer activities, and career opportunities? How do we give our children hope? It was through these months of discovery that we honed our mission. The people of the community were concerned most about family. That would be our highest concern, too.
Listening to community members
We treat our philanthropy like a business. We don’t go in thinking we have all the answers. We ask questions and we listen. To start the process of change in Lost Hills, we invited the townspeople to meet with nonprofit leaders from similar California towns so they could hear their success stories. Then we held focus groups and invited the Lost Hills community to speak about their hopes and fears for the future of their town. We even went door to door to every home in Lost Hills and conducted a 40-minute in-depth interview. We also attended school board and water district meetings and had informal conversations with many community leaders.
They’re not trying to find one way to serve this population. The problems are so intertwined, they are trying to change this community from all directions at once.
New York Times Consultant
It was clear that having a safe gathering place where parents could play with their children, teens and adults could exercise, and the town could hold meetings and events, was the place to start. And that’s where our work began.
Fostering community spirit
After revealing the needs of the Lost Hills community, we built one beautiful community center and completely renovated another with new soccer fields, a basketball court, volleyball court, playgrounds, and a“splash zone” to cool kids off during the hot summers. We created a mile-long walkway around the park, wide enough for moms with strollers, bicyclists, and casual walkers to coexist. Best of all, we renovated the original community center to include a large, full-service community kitchen, six new bathrooms and plenty of room for everything from Sunday morning church services to community events, homework clubs where kids can receive help after school, sports activities, Zumba classes, ballet, cooking classes, and voter registration drives.
The most gratifying thing is that the park is now safe, beautiful, and used seven days a week. It’s a welcoming, picturesque place for recreation, relaxation, and celebration. Many residents worked on the park and community’s renovations alongside our crews, and that’s gone a long way to ensuring that the people who live there feel a sense of ownership and belonging.
With their bold commitment to the Central Valley, Lynda and Stewart Resnick are expanding opportunity for working people and their families across the region. The impact of their innovative work will be felt for years to come.
Transforming a town
We addressed the Lost Hills infrastructure by paving roads and installing storm drains, streetlights, bus shelters, and sidewalks. We worked with the county to establish a tax program that—for the first time—returns an annualized benefit directly back to the community, which gives the town autonomy to ensure long-term sustainability. Along the way, we also provided support for immigration needs, and secured the town’s first polling place so the citizens of Lost Hills could finally have a place to vote in person.
During all this work in Lost Hills, it was also clear that there was a real need for affordable housing. With the involvement of the community and a key nonprofit partner—Wasco Affordable Housing—and in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture and the county, we developed the neighborhood of Almond Village, just a short walk from Lost Hills Park. These 21 single-family homes and 60 multi-family townhouses were built specifically for families working in agriculture, with rents starting as low as $600 a month.
Our home in Almond Village is a mansion to us. I used to live in a one-bedroom trailer. We try to protect it as much as we can.
Living the dream of home ownership
For many people, owning a house creates a sense of stability and belonging. It is often a source of great pride and seen as part of the American Dream. We are building single-family homes in Lost Hills designed specifically to meet the community’s needs and help families invest in their future. By the end of 2022, the first phase of the Lomas Lindas (Spanish for beautiful hills) development will be complete.
These 21 homes offer a modern floor plan of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a two-car garage. While each home maintains the same floor plan, every buyer can customize floors, cabinets, paint colors, appliances, and exterior areas to ensure their home fits their individual needs. These homes start at $238,000 and, depending on insurance, monthly payments are as low as $1,300—helping bring the power of homeownership within reach for the next generation of our neighbors.
As of November 2022, 13 families, most of whom are involved in Wonderful—from Wonderful Orchards employees to a former Wonderful Scholar to a special education teacher—have moved into their new homes. We will keep evaluating the need for additional affordable housing developments.
Sustaining the change
In many ways, Lost Hills is a metaphor for all we do. We can’t save the world, but through focused, holistic approaches to tackling issues of education, health, and wellness, we can make a real and sustainable difference. That means providing hope in the Central Valley’s underserved rural towns—one life, one family, and one community at a time. Our hope is that this integrated model will inspire other businesses, governments, community leaders, and philanthropists.