Central Valley Opportunity Center: Gaining Ground in the War on Poverty

Authored by Anton Sherin

The cover of the Central Valley Opportunity Center's 1984 Annual Report
The cover of this annual report by The Central Valley Opportunity Center exemplifies the organization’s mission to generate labor mobility for low-income migrant farmworkers.

When “The Central Valley Opportunity Center 1984 Annual Report” was published, nearly all farmworker families living in the Central Valley of California lived below the Federal lower-living standard (CVOC, n.d., 8). Seventy five percent of migrant farmworkers spoke little to no English and language barriers combined with their itinerant existence meant that few were educated beyond the sixth grade. CVOC’s report gives a detailed account of the actions the organization took in 1984 to support migrant farmworkers’ struggle for survival. This report is valuable for understanding the foundations and efficacy of CVOC’s current operations.

The Central Valley of California is a temperate, 450 mile stretch of well irrigated, nutrient rich soil (Norton, n.d.). The 350 different crops grown there generate a quarter of the produce consumed in the United States (Perez 2019). This massive agricultural operation attracts a broad array of migrant workers to the region and wage growth is undermined by competition for unskilled positions. CVOC is one of many community-based organizations that emerged in the 1970s to address the needs of low-income migrant farmworkers in California (Tony Silva, pers. comm.). 

CVOC was initially funded through a grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity, a government agency originally born of the “War on Poverty” that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in 1969 (Davidson 1969, 2). CVOC’s founding in 1979 reflected President Johnson’s belief that “only local planning…can account for unique local needs” (6-7). The grant contracted CVOC to provide job training in the counties of Merced, Madera and Stanislaus California (Jorge De Nava Jr., pers. comm.). This came after the previous grantee had lost its contract because labor advocates lobbied that it was not serving those most in need.

In 1979, Tony Silva (pers. comm.), the first executive director of CVOC, began by creating programs that trained farmworkers in higher paid agricultural skillsets such as hydroponics, welding and tractor operation. Five years after its founding, CVOC’s annual report details its rapid expansion of programming to include education, outreach and job placement. Farmworkers, for instance, could earn their GED and receive on-the-job training for emerging markets like data entry and video production (CVOC, n.d., 15; Taylor 2000, 29).

In 1984 the majority of migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley identified as Latinos, but CVOC also served a large secondary migration of Indo Chinese, Laotian and Hmong refugees (CVOC, n.d., 16). Their program integrated culturally specific English as a Second Language with vocational training, job counseling and placement. By the end of 1984 fifty percent of trainees were employed in full-time unsubsidized employment.

CVOC continues to expand its services in response to the Central Valley’s growing population of migrant farmworkers, whose already precarious situation is further threated by political and environmental instability (Kasler 2019). In 2019 the poverty rate in the Central Valley was roughly twenty percent. This shows that while community-based organizations like Central Valley Opportunity Center have had an enormous impact over the past forty years, the War on Poverty is far from over.


Central Valley Opportunity Center. n.d. “The Central Valley Opportunity Center 1984 Annual Report.” Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.29222937.

Davidson, Roger H. 1969. “The War on Poverty: Experiment in Federalism.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 385 (September): 1-13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1037532.

Kasler, Dale. 2019. “How the Central Valley Became the ‘Appalachia of the West.’ Now, New Threats Loom for Economy.” The Sacramento Bee, September 26, 2019. https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/big-valley/article233551287.html.

Norton, Maxwell. n.d. “The Economic Impact of Central Valley Agriculture: A Case Study on Merced County.” California Farmland Trust. Accessed March 1, 2021. https://www.cafarmtrust.org/the-economic-impact-of-cv-ag-a-case-study/.

Perez, Emily. 2019. “The Central Valley Feeds the Country and the World.” The Rampage, March 12, 2015. https://www.therampageonline.com/opinion/2019/03/12/the-central-valley-feeds-the-country-and-the-world/.

Taylor J, Martin P. 2000. “The New Rural Poverty: Central Valley Evolving into Patchwork of Poverty and Prosperity.” California Agriculture 54, no. 1 (January):26-32. https://doi.org/10.3733/ca.v054n01p26.