Hispanic Heritage Month: Migrant Farm Work and Quality Early Childhood Education Experiences

A farm worker in a white hoodie walks away from the camera in a field of crops, carrying a box at shoulder height

Guest Blogger Post: Treehouse Learning edu-carer Candice M. writes about a side of Hispanic culture not always acknowledged within early childhood education programs: migrant work, food systems, and the impact of migrant work on quality early childhood learning experiences. Candice connects to her own identity as a Hispanic-American and her previous experience working with the children of migrant farm workers at Head Start.

A farm worker in a white hoodie walks away from the camera in a field of crops, carrying a box at shoulder height
During Hispanic Heritage Month, we consider the children of migrant farm workers, who experience complex considerations in accessing quality early childhood experiences that support lifelong learning and resilience.

Hispanic Heritage month is a time to reflect on the contributions Hispanic individuals make to the upbuilding of American culture. Their hard work and endurance literally put food on all our tables. All the while, many lack access to necessary nourishment for their own families! 

During my summer migrant childcare work, I discovered a side to my culture not acknowledged often; Migrant work. Many migrant working families come from Mexico and, “their families are among the poorest, least educated, least insured and least able to access healthcare.” (Journal Of The American Academy Of Pediatrics).

This migrant work is essential for everyday life as an American. The contributions of mostly Hispanic migrant workers are part of the foundation for healthy living for all. Without healthy food, we cannot survive! As we shop for local produce, it’s important to reflect on the source, sacrifices, and hardships that come with the conveniences of our local grocery store. 

Much of the work begins in the early morning before summer temperatures increase. These are very long, hot summer days. Many Hispanic individuals begin migrant work as young as 12 years old– this may be their only option. They harvest from dawn to dusk, in unsanitary conditions, full of toxic pesticides, for very little pay. They may only have what they harvest to eat or cheap non-nutritious food. These families often lack access to affordable housing, plentiful healthy food options, and educational opportunities. Let’s not also forget to mention the language barrier!  

As I began to learn about the culture and build connections with families, I found that migrant families have the same concerns I do. They want to build a better life for the future of their children. Although these individuals, men, women, and children provide America with healthy food options, many are unable to afford healthy food options for themselves. This adds extra health stressors to already overwhelmed families. 

Many Hispanic children, especially children in migrant farm working families, suffer from chronic health conditions due to toxic farm chemicals, dangerous unregulated work conditions, food insecurities, or inaccessibility to healthy food options. Some chronic food-related health conditions include obesity, malnutrition, and stunting. These nutritional health issues contribute to lifelong chronic illness and deficits in brain development. This in turn contributes to limits in future success and mortality rates in early life. 

In a recent study, (30.5%) of Hispanic children vs. (11.8%) of non-Hispanic white children, experience less than full food security. Among normal-weight children, Hispanic children had a significantly higher prevalence of stunting (7.0%) compared to non-white children (2.6%).  Many children (newborn to age 11) spend their days in the automobiles families travel in, as most migrant work is a family affair. This does not assist in ending the cycle of poverty among Hispanic individuals– in fact, the cycle continues.  

As an educator, I understand the importance of essentials and basic needs in early care. When young children have their basic needs consistently met (food, connection, clean water, bathrooms, basic health care, and safety/security), optimal learning opportunities can take place. This is the foundation for optimal brain growth and performance throughout life. 

When any of these basic needs are lacking, the body and brain are stunted. This may impact the child throughout their life including future success, full brain development, and increased death rates. This is in addition to the barriers they encounter, being a farm worker, non-native English-speaking, and Mexican-American in a foreign land that is often experienced as far from welcoming. Access to quality early childhood education experiences is something that all children deserve, but not all children receive- especially the children of migrant farm worker families. 

As an educator, I see the future in a different way. I teach to change tomorrow. We educate for the opportunity, the “sky’s the limit” mentality, and “change starts with you” thinking. In my previous experience with Head Start, we focused on providing nutritious food, health care checkups, and access to creative explorations through play, socialization, and connection. Head Start provides English language immersion, relational connection, and resources for family success. As a result, families can work, without the extra stressors of childcare, dangerous conditions, and child needs. 

Many of my families at Head Start said it was beneficial knowing their work provides financially, as well as providing a better future for their children. This ultimately provided migrant children with opportunities their parents did not have. They already had a “head start.” 

However, the persisting concern is the need for better working conditions, enforced labor laws, and financial stability. We can all advocate to assist Hispanic Farm workers in this regard. Farm work is essential to maintaining American society. To create change we need to use our resources and voice to advocate for meaningful, safe, lucrative work for all individuals. Donate to organizations that support nutrition and health services to migrant families or advance educational equity in early childhood experiences. Get involved, and simply begin by being open to learning and considering new perspectives!

As I reflect on Hispanic Heritage month, I appreciate the value Hispanic individuals and Hispanic culture bring to American life. I value their essential, difficult work, their endurance, and their drive for the betterment of tomorrow.  I reflect on the sacrifices made by Hispanic families. If we want to change tomorrow, we have to start today! This begins by acknowledging how Hispanic culture enriches American culture and acknowledging real disparities and systemic factors in migrant work and farm culture. When we pause to notice, we can all appreciate how American culture is supported by the continuity Hispanic people make for a better tomorrow.

Please see below for additional resources and information:

U.S. Policies and Their Effects on Immigrant Children’s Health | AAFP

Health Status of Children of Migrant Farm Workers

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