Date: Thursday, January 31, 2008
Section: A SECTION
Edition: FINAL Page: A1
Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer
Column: FARMWORKERS FACE CRISIS OF CARE
THE DANGERS OF THE FIELDS
BY KUMARI KELLY
WAHNETA — Florida’s fields and groves can be dangerous — sometimes
deadly — playgrounds for children of migrant farmworkers who are often
left unattended or are drafted to help pick crops.
And while improvements in migrant child care have been made during the
past three decades, funding cutbacks have reversed some of those strides,
“The issue remains: There is not enough child care all the way around,”
said Veronica Arteaga, center coordinator at the Redlands Christian
Migrant Association day-care center in Wahneta.
The consequences can be tragic.
Fourteen months ago, 2-year-old Ruben Velazquez of Winter Haven was
crushed in a Polk County citrus grove by a 1994 Ford F-250 truck driven by
his 10-year-old brother.
The boys and their 7-year-old sister were supposed to be staying in the
vehicle while their parents picked citrus, Polk law-enforcement
Lourdes Villanueva, Head Start manager at the center, said children have
been in the fields and groves as long as she can remember — including
when she worked alongside her own parents. She and others at the center
said affordable child care remains one of the most challenging hurdles.
Florida has about 97,200 undocumented children in public schools, many of
them children of migrant workers, according to the Urban Institute Press.
The Florida Migrant Child Survey 2003 showed that by the age of 12, a
farmworker’s child may be laboring 16 to 18 hours a week. An estimated
100,000 migrant children work on farms in the United States, according to
OxFam America, a national nonprofit.
“A lot of people take them [children] to the fields,” said one Polk County
migrant grove worker, whom the Sentinel is not naming because he is
The 35-year-old man’s two preschool children have free day care through
the Redlands program.
The agency serves about 8,000 migrant-farmworker children throughout
Florida. Without such help, the only option for some families is taking
kids to work.
Budget constraints this year forced the program to cut hours at the
Wahneta center and to close a Polk County after-school program for
siblings of the preschoolers.
Family income: $8,500
“Some people bring the little ones — 2, 3, 4, 5 [years old]. You try to
keep them in the truck, but the kids want to get outside. They want to
play,” the worker said, adding that he and his wife earn $1.40 per box of
They usually pick about 80 boxes a day, for about $112, he said. The
average migrant family earns $8,500 annually, according to government
officials. While child care is free at the migrant center, the worker’s
paycheck must cover $400 a month for rent, food, medical care,
transportation and other living expenses.
About 250,000 to 300,000 seasonal and migrant farmworkers, many of whom
are parents, travel throughout Florida each year, according to the Florida
Department of Health.
Migrant children contribute to the $28 billion produce industry, despite
often being untrained, ill-equipped physically and psychologically and
legally underage to work, according to studies such as one by the Food
First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in California.
And groves are among the most dangerous agricultural work environments,
according to the National Agriculture Safety Database.
Kids as young as 10 can work
Labor laws in Florida allow children as young as 10 to hand-pick fruit
seasonally if the employer has a waiver from the secretary of labor, but
only children who are 16 and older may work in agricultural jobs
considered hazardous, which includes riding a tractor or handling
The trucks and cars line up at the day care in Wahneta before the doors
Last year, the center opened at 6 a.m., but rising costs forced a later
opening at 6:30 a.m., center officials said.
Like its sister facility in nearby Eloise, the Wahneta center also has a
The Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which receives funding from
state, federal and nonprofit sources such as United Way, serves children
in more than 75 centers in 21 Florida counties including Polk, and has
about 2,000 children on waiting lists. A new center is being planned for
the Mulberry area of Polk County.
The Wahneta facility serves up to 66 preschool children of
migrant-farmworker families in Polk County free of charge, Arteaga said.
To qualify, parents must provide proof that they work in the fields and
that the whole family travels seasonally.
Carmen Garcia, 20, of Wahneta is a U.S. citizen, born to
She travels between Florida, where she picks oranges, to Michigan, where
she picks apples, with her husband and two boys, Arturo Benitez, 2, and
Jorge Benitez, 3.
She knows, though, that unless something changes, her family’s income will
take a deep hit when her first child starts school.
She plans to quit traveling to give the children educational stability, a
move that will disqualify her from all child care at the center. For now,
though, working remains her only real option.
“Why would I be lazy and just stay home,” she said. “We have to pay
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