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Valley Storytellers Project brings people together over hunger

It's lunchtime at the Sanger High School Cafeteria. But instead of hundreds of teenagers, the room on this Saturday is filled with ordinary Valley residents of all ages and ethnicities, some writers, and a handful of theatre professionals from LA's Cornerstone Theatre. And even though many of them just ate, the conversation quickly turns to the issue of the day… hunger.

"Food is such an essential part of, such an essential need that binds us all together. So I'm really very glad that I came today, and I hoping we have a lot of people to come out and join us and see our finished project next week," said Arvin resident Maria Mercado.

That finished product will be an original play, written by writers like Mai Der Vang, based upon the personal stories of project participants. It's the first activity of The Valley Storytellers Project.

"When we think about the communities here, and we think about the Valley, we do think about a place that is abundant. But there are many families out there who live in poverty too. Some of the stories that we will hear later today are going to touch upon how families are coping to survive and put food on the table, in the way this economy is right now," said Vang.

Fresno resident and project participant Bao Xiong is member of the kNOw Youth Media group.

"For me my best meal is just going to a buffet, because that's when I could eat anything I want. But a lot of people in the group said that their best meal was when their whole family was there, everyone was together, and it was just like a very happy moment for them," said Xiong.

And in the process of sharing their stories in today's workshop, many of the storytellers have found commonalities in their experiences.

"When we were talking about food preparation, heritage and passing things on, when we were talking about things that make us feel better, when we are not feeling well, there's more commonality than there is differences," said Mercado.

The project that's currently underway in Sanger is a collaboration between Nikiko Masumoto and Cornerstone, which has adopted theme of hunger for its current slate of projects. Paula Donnely is Cornerstone's Institute Director.

We recently finished a cycle of plays we called "The Justice Cycle" so now we're headed into "The Hunger Cycle" which is exploring ideas of hunger, food, where food comes from. It's a pretty rich and sort of endless topic and how you might want to interpret it," said Donnely.

It's not the first time Cornerstone has brought its unique blend of community centered theatre to the Valley. Just last summer, the group set up shop in another nearby farming community and produced the original historical play "A Man Comes to Fowler." In 2004, the group did a similar project in Lost Hills, and has plans to work in Arvin in the near future.

"What makes us unique is making plays with communities. From the content of what goes into the story as well as who is on-stage and who is in the audience of that play. We had a great experience in Fowler this summer," said Donnely.

Director Daniel Pinella took part in the Fowler project, and walked away with his own hunger related memories.

"The stand-out moment of it was going into a field, picking a nectarine from the Masumoto's farm, and eating that nectarine straight. For me, living in Orange County, in Anaheim, born and raise, city slicker and what not, suburban, I had smiles, because I get my fruit from the grocery store."

As lunch wrapped up the group reconvened to begin the work of gathering stories which will soon be transformed into the play. The final product is still in the works, but writer Mai Der Vang says the stories of the participants have given her plenty of inspiration.

"I think what's powerful about what we've heard a lot this morning is the connection between food and memory. How sometimes it's not about the food that we eat, but it's really about the memory that's attached to that food, or the nostalgia that a certain food brings back, or just how food brings people together."

The project concludes on Saturday February 4th with a performance of the play at 12:30 PM at Sanger High School.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).