How Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Programs Mitigate Environmental Injustices  

By Alejandra Londono Gomez, Sofia Gilkeson, and Ilda Martinez 

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the seventh in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here. This piece was written in collaboration with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA).  

Farmworkers–who overwhelmingly identify themselves as immigrants, Hispanic, and undocumented–are afforded few protections and paid historically low wages, while they face extremely unsafe work conditions such as exposure to pesticides and extreme heat. These environmental injustices have also caused health-related inequities for farmworkers and their families. As we continue to explore the relationship between environmental justice and racial justice, we must acknowledge that people are at the center of a greener society.  

As Cesar Chavez noted, “every time we sit at a table at night or in the morning to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.” It is especially concerning that for many farm-working families, the lack of child care has translated to children being introduced to the fields as babies. Some older children even start working in the fields and ultimately face the same occupational hazards and poor health outcomes as their parents. This has tremendous impacts on children’s physical health and their mental wellbeing. 

The federal Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) program was founded in 1969 with the primary purpose of keeping the children of farmworkers out of the fields. Since then, the program has provided essential child care and early education services, allowing farmworkers to provide our nation’s food source, while keeping their children safe. Just like Head Start and Early Head Start, MSHS provides services focused on the whole child and family, including early education addressing cognitive, developmental, and socio-emotional needs; medical and dental screenings and referrals; nutritional services; parental involvement activities; referrals to social service providers for the entire family; and mental health services.  

However, even children enrolled in MSHS programs continue to experience environmental injustices. The link between pesticide exposure for parents and its correlating effect on children has been widely documented in medical literature. MSHS and other partners, such as the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), have devised strategies to better protect children from pesticide exposure. For example, RCMA received a grant to install sanitation stations outside MSHS centers, as well as provide long sleeve cotton shirts, so parents can wash up and change before touching their children.  

The program also recognized how these environmental injustices translated to the mental wellbeing of families in the program. The Workers Lab provided support to Justice for Migrant Women to work in partnership with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA), the Eva Longoria Foundation, and Latinx Therapy to create and pilot the Healing Voices Project. This program uses the power of storytelling to support trauma-informed healing for families, as well as teach workers their rights, build community connections, and inspire change. This project has helped many parents heal from the trauma they endured as immigrants and farm-working families. A Florida farm-working mother of seven shared that “mental health is an important component of health for the farmworker community because we face different challenges.” She shared that some of these challenges include migrating to different areas for work and facing language barriers that make it difficult for them to navigate life. This program includes a parenting component that helped parents translate what they learned into creating a trauma-informed home environment.  

For farm-working families, MSHS has become a safe place for children to be cared for as parents work, while also supporting families in their unique needs. The program helps farm-working families navigate the environmental and health-related injustices they face because of their occupation. It also supports the children as they get older. Every year, three or four young people who participated in a MSHS program as children are recruited to become interns at the NMSHSA. Their first-hand experience of growing up in farm-working families allows them to advocate for the program that surely made a big impact in their lives.  

For decades we have failed to protect farmworkers and their families from the corporate greed that has fueled harmful occupational practices in the agricultural industry. We continue to produce our nation’s food source on the backs of children and families who for generations have silently endured devastating physical and mental health burdens. It’s time for us to work together to protect workers and their families from the many occupational hazards they endure. It’s also time for us to recognize that children don’t belong in a field, but in a safe and nurturing environment. And the only way we can make that happen is by investing in our nation’s child care and early education system, including significant resources for MSHS.