Most Americans aren't aware of the 400,000 children who pick much of the food we eat. Filmmaker U. Roberto Romano's new documentary The Harvest aims to draw attention to these children and the substandard conditions they work under. The film follows three migrant worker children and their families into the fields and across thousands of miles, showing viewers the high price they pay so a nation can eat cheaply. Boxoffice caught up with Romano recently to discuss his new film.
One of the burning questions I had throughout the film was how is it possible that children in America can work under these conditions?
Well, it's possible because of the loophole in American law in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The reason why probably was that in 1938 over 90 percent of our food came from family farms. But in 2010, and for the last decade, less than one percent of our food has come from family farms. So, there really is no need to have an exemption for children in agriculture. You know, it's very simple that today a kid—a child, age 12—can work in 100 degrees heat 16 hours a day picking tomatoes. But that same kid may not be allowed to even work in an air-conditioned office for three hours.
So, is the exemption just for children working on farms, then?
It's an agricultural exemption.
And it just happens that the people working on farms today are mostly migrant workers and migrant workers' children?
Well, no. Migrant workers are a portion of farm workers in the United States. But what's happened is that because of this loophole, their children qualify. And because their children qualify, I suspect that's one of the reasons why we have so many child laborers and why migrant wages are as substandard as they are. An average migrant family makes less than $17,500 a year. So you have to understand, these children really have no choice but to work. Even in poor conditions. It's basically this: they don't have the right to minimum wage, they don't have the right to overtime, they don't have the right to a day off, they don't have the right to collective bargaining. The people with the least amount of rights today are farm workers, and the people with the least amount of rights in farm workers are farm worker children.
But they're working to change that legislation, correct?
Well, there's two things that are going on right now. For the past ten years, Representative Roybal-Allard and sometimes Senator Tom Harkin—but it's usually Representative Roybal-Allard—has tried to introduce the Care Bill into Congress. And what the Care Bill does is get rid of the double standards that exist for farm worker children in the Fair Labor Standards Act. But, right now, also what's going on is that the Department of Labor has put revisions to the child labor laws in the Fair Labor Standards Act for review, as well. So that's another way that they're trying to get rid of this double standard. So there are two things happening concurrently. One is there's a bill that we're trying to get onto the floor for a vote called the Care Act. It's the Children's Act for Responsible Employment. But the other is that since September, the Department of Labor has put up a list of changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act and is seeking public comment on those. And hopefully those will end parts of this double standard. What's on with the DOL will not necessarily change the rules for pesticide exposure, which is too bad because that's a major issue at this point. I don't know if you know this, but right now standards for pesticide exposure in the country are set at the level of a grown male individual.
So they don't take into account the developing body of a child. They don't take into account women who are pregnant. It's just literally at one standard, and our inspectors are way behind the curve on all of the pesticides and all the chemical fertilizers and everything else that keeps being developed. We keep developing these agents at a rate of thousands, and we inspect them at a rate of hundreds. But what's very very interesting to me is that we do have legislation that doesn't allow these pesticides to be sprayed in residential areas where children are or near schools or anything else. But we don't have legislation to protect farm worker children from working with these pesticides. Again, it's another example of that double standard. They're turning a blind eye to these children. And we are talking about hundreds of thousands of children. This is not an isolated incident here and there. You know, this is a substantial portion of our young population in this country.
Yeah, in the film it said it's in 48 states, so it's not what you think either—
I had asked the Texas Migrant Interstate Council to go through their records and track their migrant kids, and they tracked them to 48 states.
It didn't include Alaska and Hawaii. We know that there's agriculture in Hawaii. And we know there are children who work there. But I think migrating to Hawaii might be a bit tough.
And migrating to Alaska may be a bit tough, but there are, you know—I mean, who knows, maybe there's a child caribou rancher. I'm being a little bit facetious.
I had originally done the film and I had heard 42 states and I was thinking, "Wow, are you sure?" And so they went and checked their files and they came back and said, "No, we were wrong. It was 48!" But they literally had records of children going to 48 states, and when you think about it that actually could be right. We are the number one exporter of food in the world. So given that we're the number one exporter of food in the world, I guess we're growing it all over this country. I visited—I don't know—maybe eighteen to twenty states, dealing with this issue, so I can personally vouch for seeing kids in eighteen to twenty states in this country.
So have you had any communication with the owners of these farms or the companies that own these farms?
Not with the companies that own these farms. But I did need permission to shoot on the farms, and I actually have to say this: this is not a problem of farmers abusing farm workers. All of the farms—and that's not to say there aren't abuses with farm owners. We've had cases of slavery in Florida that have been successfully prosecuted. We know that there have been housing violations. We know that there are wage and hour violations and everything else. But I was very fortunate that I was following kids who had worked on farms that the farmers allowed me to film. And the farmers aren't the bad guy here. The farmers are also forced into a low rent position. Family farms are failing at historic rates. And the problem really is that we live in a country that pays the least amount of its income on food. We're used to cheap food. And what's happened is that the economies of scale and industrial agriculture have overtaken agriculture. What they've done is actually taken the culture out of agriculture. It's now agribusiness. The farmers that I worked with really felt that these kids deserved equal opportunity as well. And many of them were behind the film and wanted to see the law changed. But they were caught in a catch-22, which is that they could only get so much money at market for their produce. And even if they paid slightly above minimum wage, and many of these guys did—the point of fact is that it's cyclical and temporary work. Migrant farm workers need to make what they can when they can make it. So the more hands that you have in the field, the more money you make. This is a systemic problem in agriculture, and I think it's too easy and facile to just blame the farmers. We need to take a step back and see what we're doing with food and agriculture in this country. As I said earlier, we spend the least amount of our disposable income on food. What do we spend the most of our disposable income on? Do you know?
No, but it's—
Medical care. And I think the two of those things are linked. We have these dietary distorting subsidies for corn and for soy and for everything else. We tend to favor large agribusiness over small, local farms. So I think there's been a corruption to the Jeffersonian ideal of farming and agriculture in this country, and it's something we're going to have to take a step back from and take a real look at. The Harvest literally was made to address a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of children, but it speaks to a much broader problem of, what are we doing? How are we feeding ourselves? How are we taking care—it's not just, how are we taking care of these children? It's ultimately, how are we taking care of ourselves?
Yeah, and I think it'd be hard for anyone to watch this film and not think about that—think about what food you're buying and where it's coming from.
Right. And what's very interesting is that what I chose to do was to connect the viewer to the children who give them their food. And what I think we really really need to is to connect ourselves back to the land and back to the food that feeds us. I mean, we should know where stuff comes from. The most common comment that I get about The Harvest is that people say, "I didn't know this went on. Oh my God, how horrible." But that same thing could be said, like, "I didn't know I was putting all of this high-fructose corn syrup or all of this growth hormone or all of these fruits with these carcinogenic pesticides into my system. Wow, I didn't realize that tomato actually had more fish genes that tomato genes in it. I didn't realize that my cows literally never walked or ate grass, and were confined to a two-by-six foot area their entire life and force-fed grain even though they're roaming." I don't know if you know anything about industrial agriculture, but it's monstrous and frightening. You know, we have things called CAFLs—confined area feeding lots—where we literally stick thousands of cows into small holding cells. We force-feed them corn even though they're grass eaters. And what happens is that the cows eventually will die because they're not built to eat corn. They're not built to eat grains. They're built to eat grass. And that's why we need to feed them all these growth hormones and antibiotics and everything else because we've given them a diet they really can't live on. Their entire systems are weakened so we dope them up with drugs and chemicals. It's not the way to go. I don't think it's how we should treat the animals and the people that sustain us. But there is this incredibly gross indignity that we visit upon everything in the food chain below us, including the workers. We don't know who they are. We don't pay them a living wage or a decent wage. We put tens of thousands of chickens into small, little cages that they can't even turn around in, and all we do is make them lay eggs. We take cows, and we feed them food that kills them, and then we slaughter them in the most inhumane way, and eat this very compromised meat: it's full of fat, it's full of hormones and other chemicals. And as a result, you and I are two of the first generations that will have a shorter lifespan than our parents. Hippocrates is right: let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food. We forgot that age-old dictum.
Yeah, it's definitely become a much bigger problem than—
So what this is, is a window on a world. But it's a window that was very important to me and my cares and concerns. I'm very very interested in children's rights. I've always let Nelson Mandela in many ways be my guide. I don't know if you know what he said once, but he said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." I really believe in that. But I look at it in the way in which we treat our children is the way in which we ultimately are treating ourselves and our future.
Yeah. Absolutely. So you film these children and their families. You're in their homes. You're where they're working. You travel with them for thousands of miles. Was it difficult for you to gain their trust? Did it take a while to build up trust with them?
Well yeah, I mean, it always takes time to build up trust with anybody. I mean, think about it: any working relationship develops over time. You may be able to start off knowing people but time reveals a lot of things. You gain each other's trust. But not only that, you learn more about each other, as well. And the more you learn about each other, the more intimate you can become—the more revealing things become, as well. So there was a time with Zulema [a young girl featured in the film] where in the beginning she was very talkative and then there was a while where—she's a growing girl, and all of a sudden she began to have her adolescent fits, so to speak. So she wouldn't talk to me for a while, and then, what was very very interesting was that I continued to care about her and I continued to drive to wherever she was, and then one day she turned to me and it was basically like, "OK, I'll talk to you again." And she said, "because you came back." I think that's true about everything. I think people just need to know that you're sincere, that you're consistent, and that you care. And a lot of the ways in which you can show that is just continue to show up. Just being there is half the fight.
Have you been able to maintain contact with any of them or their families?
All of them. All of them and some of the kids who never made it into the final cut. I'm very much in tune with them, and my associate director talks to them probably even more than I do. But I know we've just arranged for Zulema and Perla to go to a screening of the film down in the Valley. I was with another girl who was able to get a scholarship to go to college in part because she had been in the film and there were some people who'd seen a trailer at a fundraiser, and she was in it and they wondered who she was. And I myself am very concerned with these kids, as well, so I try to keep on top of them. I want to make sure they all graduate.
Right now, we're just working with another child who I interviewed who wasn't in the film, in Michigan, and helping her with some issues she's having in school, because there's always a certain amount of racism still that attaches itself to this community. I talk to each of the kids once or twice a month. I'm Facebook friends with a few of them, as well. These are relationships that will continue beyond the film. And I think it's only natural. Some of these kids I've known for three years now. I'm kind of like a distant uncle. I'm the uncle who lives in New York. Here's the other thing, too: if you're willing to put in the time and get down and dirty, they'll be appreciative of that. I mean, the fact that some of these families—I was in the back of the truck with them as we drove for 72 or 80 hours. We would hunker down at migrant rest camps on the road. We would eat at roadside taco shops. You know, we'd swap stories. I mean, at 2 o'clock in the morning at a gas station. They're human beings. We're all human beings.
What would you say to consumers or really anybody who sees this and is troubled by it? What would you tell people to do?
Well, I'd tell them a whole bunch of things to do depending on what troubles them about this film. But I would say, first off, call your Congressperson. You're not just a consumer; you're a citizen. And say, "Why is this going on?" "Why is the Care Bill not getting to the floor for a vote?" Call the Department of Labor and say, "I want those changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act." Buy organic. Buy local. Learn about where your food comes from. As I said to you, it's no mystery to me that we live in this incredibly hyper economy of scale where we go and we buy the cheapest stuff and then stuff it down our gullets. The fact is, we should be better informed about where our food comes from, and not only what's in it, but who gets it for us, as well. It's very interesting because the better we treat the workers and the product, the better off we'll be in the end, as well. The more care with which we deal with these people, the more care with the food we eat, the healthier we'll be. This is a direct relation which there's no escaping. Look, in the end, it's really about sustainability. We want the people who pick our food to be treated in a respected way. We want our food to be grown and handled in a humane and sustainable way. And we want our food to be able to sustain us. Why are we the most obese nation in the world? Why are a third of our children on their way to having diabetes? It's in our own best interest to take more of an interest in our food. Let me rephrase that: it's in our own best interest to understand where our food comes from, who picks it for us, what's in it. You know, I raise my voice to my elected representative, and I go to my farmer's markets, and I buy in my community supported agriculture. I eat organic. And I'm willing to make that exchange. I'm willing to pay a little bit more up front to the people who feed me, so I don't have to pay a lot more downstream to the people who are gonna try to keep me alive. I think it's a very wise investment.