“The Harvest” Film Screening Highlights Why You Should Get Involved

On Friday October 27th, I attended the screening and panel discussion of The Harvest/La Cosecha: The Story of the Children Who Feed America, with UNIDAD and other interested students, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in White Plains. For a film that runs at just 80 minutes, the documentary is extremely powerful. The format is simple: it follows three children, Zulema Lopez, age 12, Perla Sanchez, 14, and Victor Huapilla, 16, as they migrate to pick produce with their families. What is perhaps the most stunning fact of this film, something that was new to many people in the screening room, is that child labor in the agricultural sector is perfectly legal in the U.S. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), children under 12 may be employed outside of school hours with parental consent on “small farms,” usually farms with fewer than 11 employees. While non-agricultural employment law has strict guidelines restricting how many hours minors aged 14 and 15 are allowed to work, no such guidelines exist under agricultural employment law.

Despite this egregious negligence, what I loved most about the film was that it doesn’t portray any of the characters as simple, one-dimensional victims. Zulema in particular stood out to me — at times she acknowledged the grave importance of her contribution to the family’s income (she earned $65 a week at one point); at other times she delayed the family’s schedule by putting on makeup before going out to the fields; and on occasion, she simply refused to work. In other words, she is just like every other teenage girl, but one who refuses to willingly accept a cycle of poverty that has been passed down in her family.

The most heartbreaking part of the documentary occurred when one of the children’s mothers walks through the produce aisle of a supermarket, and wonders if she can afford to buy vegetables for her family. This captures a great injustice that is taking place in this country: the people who labor to put food on our tables cannot afford to feed themselves on their wages. So what can we, as conscious consumers, do to change this?

The first step is undoubtedly to inform yourself so that you can take part in the conversation that surrounds food and food justice, which often overlooks the role of labor. There is some basic information on The Harvest website that could serve as a good starting point. According to Katia Chapman, a worker for the non-profit Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM) which organized the screening:

There have always been groups of people who cared about food, whether that was how it was grown, where, or the caloric value — it is natural to care about food on some level. Within the past ten years, however, there has been a large shift. More consumers are looking at labels to see whether their food is local, and whether it is organic. There were always organic and local farms, but now it is viable for these farms to go through expensive applications to receive organic certification, and to promote their goods in local markets. Consumers now ask whether their food is fresh, organic, local. We want them to enter a supermarket or a restaurant and start asking, “Was this picked by a 12-year-old?”

A part of forming that question in people’s consciousness is to build awareness. You can do that in a number of ways, whether it’s through writing a letter to a senator about expanding protection to child laborers in the agricultural sector; writing pieces for your local papers exposing the low wages of farm workers; or organizing rallies and dinners around the issue. For those who would like to be involved more directly, the RMM is looking for interns to start in the spring semester, which is also when they are planning to boost their campaign efforts. There are also a number of ally organizations of the RMM that you can work with and support, such as the Labor-Religion Coalition, Worker Justice Center, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (who successfully pressured Chipotle into signing the Fair Food Program). Whatever you choose to do, and whoever you choose to work with, make sure that you do something.

Deborah was born and raised in Malaysia; three years ago she couldn’t wait to leave, but now finds herself writing and thinking about home all the time. She finds herself being mistaken for Latina in the United States, the latest in a long line of ethnicities other people have assumed for her, and decided to just go with it.

1 Comment

  • Reply November 15, 2012

    A. Louise

    Lovely write-up, Deborah! I’m so glad you enjoyed the screening and providied ideas here to work in finding solutions. So often these conversations fall off at “oh, how awful” without taking any responsiblity for action towards change. I appreciate your insights and for holding us, the consumers, accountable.

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