-by special guest Juliana Simmons of the Migrant Clinicians Network
A farmworker mother in Florida couldn’t afford childcare for her children, so they often waited for her in the car at the edge of the fields. She was worried about them waiting there on a particularly hot day, so she told them to pass the time playing in a nearby sprinkler. The mother later learned that it was in fact a pesticide sprayer, and was horrified about what her children had been exposed to.
Neither farmworkers nor farmowners want children to be injured in the fields, and yet children on farms are at a pretty high risk of injury or chemical exposure – even when they aren’t the ones working. Agriculture-related incidents claim a child’s life every three days in the United States, and injure 33 more daily. Farmworker parents are often unable to afford or access childcare. Despite farm owners’ attempts to keep the children of farmworkers away from the worksite, farmworkers report having children wait in parking lots and along the edges of fields while parents work; they simply have nowhere safe to go.
Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), along with the National Children’s Center for Rural Agricultural Health and Safety (NCCRAHS), is working to better understand the landscape of childcare options for farmworker families and the challenges facing the multiple stakeholders involved. Through interviews and surveys with farmworker parents, farmowners, and childcare providers, a common thread quickly emerged: all parties are equally concerned about the safety of children. Farmers report not always being aware that children are present, because workers keep the children out of sight knowing that bringing them is breaking the rules. Some farmowners recognize that children on farms is a problem in their area and are taking significant measures to improve the situation: such as leasing land for an on-site Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center to be built, and providing funds to help transport children to off-site childcare services. However, most areas are still greatly underserved when it comes to opportunities to access quality and affordable off-farm childcare services.
Sometimes the gap between the farmer and the farmworker regarding children in the fields is so big that the two sides have trouble talking. But we at MCN believe that opening the conversation, and bringing in childcare providers’ perspectives as well, can help us find common ground to solve the problem of children in the field. While MCN tackles the issue by helping keep children out of the fields, AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign attacks from another angle: by educating children in farmworker families on how to mitigate the dangerous effects of agricultural pesticides. Our different methods work towards a common goal: making sure the children of farmworkers are safe. In addition to improving the safety of their farms, farmers are also excited about the possibility of attracting more parents to their farm by improving childcare offerings. The potential to improve employee retention and productivity, with parents less worried about the care of their children, is also appealing.
So, in 2015, we began the Protecting Children While Parents Work project, in partnership with the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. The goal of this ongoing project is to bring together farmers, farmworker parents, and childcare providers to better understand the challenges of accessing childcare and to strategize solutions. After two years of outreach and listening to all three stakeholder groups about their challenges and opportunities for success, the results of this on-the-ground research informed the project’s direction, and tit was decided to create a tool for coalition building. Currently the team is developing a roadmap to guide communities through the process of building relationships among parents, farmers, and childcare providers so that this process of coming together to find the solution that best benefits farmworker children can be replicated across the United States. The development of this roadmap is guided by the findings gathered in the initial years of the project, and while the roadmap is still currently in development, the project team is looking forward to piloting the tool with select partners before the end of the five-year project.
Through this work, we have found that childcare providers and farm owners, two groups that have sometimes butted heads, can come together and find mutually beneficial solutions for issues that they both care about. Farmworkers are excited about the prospect of better services for their children, childcare providers look forward to more streamlined services and easier recruiting with support from farmers, and farmers are anxious to improve farm safety and strengthen their ability to employ and retain quality workers.
MCN recognizes that ongoing dialogue is the key to bridging the gap among groups that are sometimes seen as contrary to each other. By bringing the focus of the conversation towards improving safety and health, we, alongside AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign and other important collaborators, can work together towards our common goal to protect children from the health risks in agriculture. To learn more about the innovative work MCN is spearheading and to keep up to date with this project, we invite you to subscribe to our blog and explore the resources on our website.
Juliana Simmons, MSPH, CHES, is a program manager at Migrant Clinicians Network and has recently published research on barriers to accessing childcare among agricultural workers. She is interested in furthering research regarding best practices for protecting children and finding common ground among growers, parents, and childcare providers.