My two cents on President’s Obama’s State of the Union address

Maurice Bloem | February 14, 2013

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. Photo: Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. Photo: Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

I was disappointed that the president seemed to have forgotten what he said at the 2012 G-8 Summit: “We can unleash the change that reduces hunger and malnutrition. . . . I pledge to you today that this will remain a priority as long as I am the United States president.”

We commended him for this commitment in a letter to President Obama in the beginning of this year, CWS CEO and President John L. McCullough urged Obama to seek increased foreign assistance for hungry and impoverished people and to lead the way to “fair and generous” immigration reform.

Fortunately, President Obama said in his State of the Union address that the U.S. economy will be stronger when talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants are harnessed. And it is encouraging hearing the president say that he is ready to sign a bill in the coming months.

However, as my CWS colleague Erol Kekic stated today, it is disappointing to hear and read the continual focus on border and interior enforcement provisions including a mandatory employment verification system as these provisions have proven detrimental to communities. Erol said: “We do not need more enforcement. We need real solutions that can only be found in a pathway to full citizenship for our community members who are undocumented, and in visa reforms that make our immigration system more effective and timely for both family reunification and employment-based immigrants.”

CWS is also working to see that certain provisions will be included in legislation to improve the lives of refugees resettled in the United States. This is all a long overdue process that will finally give at least 12 million living in the U.S. who are without documentation right now citizenship status.

Interestingly, around 1.2 million (almost 10 percent) of these undocumented workers are employed on farms. Twilight Greenaway reminds us that if we add to that number the many people who work in feedlots, slaughterhouses, warehouses, factories and restaurants, we get some idea about the reality of the power of the food industry in our lives and will come to realize that our cheap and plentiful food supply is really only possible because it is produced by undocumented workers.

This is further explained in a report called The Hands That Feed Us, which notes that seven out of ten worst paying jobs in the US are food-related. And because undocumented workers don’t have right of citizens, they are prone to all kinds of vulnerabilities.

One of my CWS colleagues said to me yesterday: “Yes, you are right, my partner who is one of those undocumented workers was really sick yesterday, but decided to go to his work anyway being afraid of losing his job.”

Poor wages and working conditions in the food industry are not only applicable to undocumented workers, but to many workers in the food industry in the United States. Food workers also face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce. They also use food stamps at double rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

Now, as immigration reform could change the face of food work, it might be also the right time to really make our food system more sustainable and equitable, so that we really can start doing something sustainable about those 1 billion hungry (as well as the 1 billion obese as I wrote in another blog.)

Now, what can we do about this? In the U.S. you can call your senators and tell them to protect anti-hunger programs. The Hands That Feed Us report list a couple of additional suggestions such as: “You can support responsible food system employers who are providing liveable wages, benefits, and advancement opportunities for all workers, and who provide sustainable food as well as to help educate other consumers and food justice advocates about the need to include sustainable working conditions for food workers within the definition of sustainable food.”

You can, of course, also support organizations like CWS who are working for a world free of hunger.

By Maurice Bloem, Executive Vice President of CWS
Follow Maurice on Twitter:  @mauricebloem