Migration Matters: Serving Essential Farmworkers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Can you start by giving us a big picture look at the role of migrant farmworkers and their families in the United States?

The United States relies upon the labor of more than two million farmworkers each year to plant and harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables that nourish us. Overwhelmingly, these farmworkers have migrated to the United States from abroad; most arriving from Mexico, but farmworkers come to the United States from many countries including Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti to name just a few.

Children of farmworkers play together in the playground at one of ECMHSP’s Head Start centers. Source: ECMHSP (Image taken prior to COVID-19. ECMHSP teachers and staff wear masks.)

How has COVID-19 impacted the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and The Foundation for Farmworkers?

ECMHSP provides Head Start services to farmworker families in 38 Head Start centers located in rural communities from Lake Okeechobee, Florida to Lake Erie, Pennsylvania. Each year, we serve more than 2,300 young children, from birth to school-age, providing those children with culturally-sensitive care and preparing them for success in our public school system as a foundation for a lifetime of success and contribution to society. It is a mission that comes with the highest degree of difficulty because the challenges our families face are so great.

John E. Menditto (right) in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, delivering cash assistance to farmworker families involved in mushroom harvesting. Source: ECMHSP

While there will be an end to the pandemic, farmworker families will continue to face unique challenges in the United States — how do you and your teams at ECMHSP and The Foundation for Farmworkers increase the long-term resilience of the families and wider communities you work with?

This is a great question because it goes to the heart of what the Head Start program was created to do when it was first established in 1965. Head Start is successful because the program recognizes a universal truth: that parents are the first and best teachers of their children. We look to include parents in all significant decision-making occurring at ECMHSP — from setting the hours of operation of the Head Start center, to a selection of the breakfast and lunch menus for the children. In the words of the founders of the Head Start program, we seek the “maximum feasible participation” of parents. Through such participation, families can see their contributions are vital to our success.

“Head Start is successful because the program recognizes a universal truth: that parents are the first and best teachers of their children.”

Now, for farmworkers who often live at or near the federal poverty levels and who must labor long hours to reach those levels, there are special challenges to participating in the Head Start program. Thus, we also rely on a network of community providers to support our work. These providers include community health clinics, mental and nutritional health consultants, and legal service providers.

We understand The Foundation for Farmworkers received a very large donation of money this summer to help families. Are there any particular families you have helped with this funding who stand out?

In late July, The Foundation for Farmworkers received an anonymous donation of $1.4 million to provide emergency cash assistance to farmworker families. This was enough money for us to provide $1,000 to every farmworker family enrolled in an ECMHSP center. Being able to help families in this way has lifted the spirits of everyone at ECMHSP and The Foundation. The two families who stand out are families working in Gaffney, South Carolina. One single mom shared she and her four children were about to fall into homelessness from a lack of farm work this summer and our cash assistance would see her through another month or two. The other family was sick with COVID-19 when we made our assistance delivery. The family accepted the check from a distance.

A woman holding an infant at one of ECMHSP’sHead Start centers. Source: ECMHSP
(Image taken prior to COVID-19. ECMHSP teachers and staff wear masks.)

What is the one thing you have learned through serving the farmworker community during the pandemic?

Farmworker families always have inspired us with their resilience. Our nation was built by migrants and continues to flourish because of it. Like millions of other people in our country, migrants come to the United States from their home countries with nothing but the hope of building a life and a community (alongside others here doing the same).

Looking ahead, what’s one thing you might suggest to help people better understand, appreciate, and embrace migrant farmworkers and their families as valuable members of our society?

We have a collective nostalgia for “the way things were.” In truth, the way things were are much like the way things are. We always have been a nation of immigrants, made stronger and richer by individuals from around the world contributing their work and their resilience to enhance our society.

“We always have been a nation of immigrants, made stronger and richer by individuals from around the world contributing their work and their resilience to enhance our society.”

Best of luck to you and your team at both East Coast Migrant Head Start Project and The Foundation for Farmworkers!

A group of children playing a game at one of ECMHSP’s Head Start Centers. Source: ECMHSP
(Image taken prior to COVID-19. ECMHSP teachers and staff wear masks.)

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National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.