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Children of the fields

Ohanian Comment: My first job, at age 12, was babysitting the three young children of migrant workers who lived in migrant housing. Living each day in the temporary shelter was an experience I'll never forget. And I wasn't out in the fields.

I'm all for kids having gardens, but Harriet Harrow makes an important point. The pretty show garden at the White House doesn't begin to address the problem we face as a very unhealthy nation. Our disease goes much deeper than whether kids eat their vegetables. Few people want to think about the real cost of the fruits and vegetables on our tables.

by Harriet Harrow

Michelle's garden grew a book. American Grown recounts one of the first lady's first official acts: planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn in March 2009.

Alarmed by skyrocketing childhood obesity, Michelle Obama invited fifth graders to help her plant, harvest and dine on homegrown produce.

Her book shows lively kids enjoying hands-on learning. Her story is "how, in gardens large and small, we have begun to grow a healthier nation."

But some 10-year-olds have different "field trips." They spend long hot days in agricultural fields.

They learn that Americans like bountiful produce aisles stocked by kids working in dangerous conditions.

Unlike kids at the White House media event, these child laborers are invisible.

Hundreds of thousands of children toil on U.S. commercial farms, a large portion in Texas. Yet many child labor laws stop at the farm gate.

Agribusiness can legally hire far younger kids for far longer hours among far more hazards than elsewhere.

The result? They suffer fatalities at four times the rate of children working other jobs.

"The U.S. is a developing country when it comes to child farm workers," says Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch. Her report, Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture, documents the problem.

Researchers interviewed 59 children working in Texas and 13 other states. They learned farm workers as young as 12 often labor 10 or more hours a day, up to seven days a week.

None of them get overtime pay. Some start working part-time at 6 or 7.

These children typically earn far less than minimum wage and sometimes must buy tools, gloves and drinking water that employers by law should provide. They drop out of school at four times the national rate.

"I don't remember the last time I got to school registration on time," says Ana, age 15 (all those quoted work for Texas farms). "I go from place to place. It scrambles things in my head, and I can't keep up."

Though the first lady links home gardens to a "healthier nation," kids tending commercial farms tell a different story.

They describe working bent at the waist, on their knees or in other awkward positions, often repeating the same movement. Children's bodies are especially vulnerable to repetitive motion injuries.

Martin, age 12, describes his first day hoeing cotton: "I felt weak. My back hurt. I got blisters on my hands and my feet."

Marta, 13, has hoed cotton since age 7. "I don't have a good day when I work. It's just so tiring," she says.

Most kids start working adult hours during the summers and on weekends at 11 or 12. Farmers in Texas can legally employ a 6-year-old for part-time work. Hazards include extreme heat, pesticides and dangerous equipment.

Hector, 18, shows a scar on his knuckle from making boxes to pack corn a few years ago.

"I went to the hospital and got four stitches. Then I came back and couldn't move my thumb, but the guy (supervisor) told me to work," he says.

Hector recalls the pesticide. "There are a lot of chemicals in the field, you can smell them. Recently the plane sprayed the cotton. I felt dizzy. I covered my face and kept working."

Up to half of workers surveyed had no training in avoiding or removing pesticides.

Heat can be hellish. Sixteen-year-old Elias says: "The hot air and sun is beating you up. The field is full of weeds; you can't take a step. When you're surrounded by corn, there's no air."

Sam, 17, adds: "You get all dehydrated and want to faint, but you need the money."

After pruning grape vines for nine hours, a 17-year-old girl in California died in 2008. Her core body temperature was 108 when the supervisor finally got her to the hospital. Why is it this bad?

The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, prohibited labor by those under age 16 in most industries but not in agriculture.

It's long past time for the U.S. to provide these kids the same protections as other working children.

But a few weeks ago, the Obama administration scrapped a Labor Department proposal that would have kept children younger than 16 from doing the few agricultural tasks that experts agree are most likely to maim or kill them.

"They came under incredible pressure from the agriculture lobby, and they caved," says Coursen-Neff.

Here's advice for Michelle: You've done a marvelous job involving children in home gardening.

Now, please turn your attention (and ours) to children in commercial gardening. The price of produce should not include the blood, sweat and tears of our kids.

Harrow is a freelance writer living in Austin.

— Harriet Harrow
Austin American-Statesman





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