When Christine Nguyen started working at VietAID, a Boston nonprofit providing services to the Vietnamese immigrant community in March 2020, she was prepared to oversee programs such as bilingual childcare and youth leadership programs. But two weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Nguyen’s job shifted to feeding the community.
“One of the first things we did was work with the city and some local partners to set up food distribution,” she said. Right away, they had to scale up the services they offered because the need was so great.
Nguyen fielded dozens of calls a day, and as one of the few physical facilities open during the pandemic, VietAID was flooded with people. “I met residents I had never seen before—dozens of them, possibly hundreds.” People outside the immediate neighborhood would hear about VietAID and come for help.
Soon, she understood that food distribution was a gateway into providing a number of social services “The issues are so connected,” Nguyen said. “Food insecurity, unemployment, general economic precarity, misinformation around COVID, a lot of fear around violence. It was all connected.”
In 2020, Feeding America, the national network of food banks, estimated that 45 million people and 15 million children lacked continuous access to healthy, nutritious food. In 2021, that number is projected to drop slightly, but even before the pandemic, more than 11 percent of U.S. households were food insecure.
And yet, you may not picture an Asian face when you think about who goes hungry in this country. Asian Americans are often markedly absent from narratives about poverty and hunger, and part of what contributes to this absence is the “model minority” stereotype, which serves to obscure food insecurity within this population.
Case in point: When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a summary of food insecurity by race and ethnicity spanning from 2008 to 2017, it categorized people dealing with this issue as either Hispanic, Black, white/non-Hispanic. or other/non‑Hispanic. And yet, Asian Americans make up six percent of the population, and data suggests that poverty within this group—especially elderly people, recent immigrants, and undocumented folks—is a serious issue, made worse by the pandemic.
According to a report from University of California, Los Angeles, the jobless rate for Asian Americans was 21 percent in 2020, compared to 16 percent for white Americans; it even soared to 25 percent in New York City. According to another recent study, Asian and Latinx households were more likely to be afraid to go out to buy food than any other groups studied, and Asian households were more likely to face transportation issues when purchasing food.”
The researchers acknowledge that study participants were not asked specifically about their reasons for being afraid. But they and other researchers discuss how racial hatred and discrimination toward Asians and Asian Americans has increased since the pandemic began, and that the rise in racially driven attacks could instill fear and anxiety about leaving home to acquire food. Anti-Asian sentiment was further amplified by rhetoric from some prominent leaders who used terms like the “China virus” and “kung flu” to scapegoat an entire race.
Persistently lacking access to food is traumatic regardless of your cultural background. But the consistent absence of Asian Americans from the discussion of food insecurity renders them invisible. And this lack of acknowledgement suggests that they may be less likely to be factored in when policymakers shape social programs or governmental assistance designed to address food insecurity.
When Asian Americans are discussed, whether in the media or in academic spaces, they are often portrayed as a model minority. This stereotype suggests that all Asian Americans excel academically, economically, and psychologically; and that they suffer few of the ills that often plague other minority groups. While this stereotype has been dissected and largely debunked in social science research, it hasn’t gone away. And the invisibility of Asian Americans from the discourse around food insecurity often mirrors the invisibility of Asian Americans within the lens of race in U.S. society. When most Americans speaking about “race,” “diversity,” and “inclusion,” the discussion is focused mostly on Black‑white relations and often leaves out people from other ethnic groups.
The model minority stereotype also obscures the heterogeneity within Asian ethnic groups. The very few research studies that have addressed this topic speak directly to the need to disaggregate ethnic data. For example, in 2018, a group of researchers published data on food security among Asian Americans in California based on the California Health Interview Survey. It was one of the first assessments of food insecurity among Asian American subgroups, and the researchers acknowledged that Asian Americans are rarely mentioned in the discourse around food insecurity. Unfortunately, they only had access to data for Chinese, Filipino, South Asian, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese Americans. They noted that because so many distinct ethnic groups are lumped together under a single statistical umbrella, they run the risk of conflating the experiences of very different groups of people.
For example, the researchers found that the highest rates of food insecurity were found in the Vietnamese American population (16 percent), while the lowest rates were found in the Japanese American population (2 percent). Vietnamese Americans also have slightly higher rates of poverty than some of the other Asian subgroups in the study—which is clearly directly related to the ability to buy food.
Asian Americans are often seen as being uniformly economically successful. In reality, however, household incomes for Americans of Asian Indian, Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese descent are often found on the higher end of the wealth spectrum, while Americans of Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, and Vietnamese descent often live well below the federal poverty level or struggle with chronic unemployment. The widening gap between these two groups complicates the common, one‑dimensional narrative of Asian American exceptionalism.
The researchers also found a significant relationship between prevalence of food insecurity and low acculturation for several Asian subgroups (Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean). Low acculturation is related to limited English language ability, which likely correlates with one’s ability and comfort in accessing social services; it likely also is linked to the possibility of fewer job opportunities and lower wages, which both might yield less access to food.
Perhaps most significantly, shame and loss of face have particular salience within many Asian cultures, which have been documented extensively as directly inhibiting a host of help-seeking behaviors, including seeking mental health care. The researchers highlighted the perceived stigma or shame that needing to go to a food bank or participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) might engender in Asian Americans, who also might not be certain if they will be able to find culturally comforting food through such programs. And while stigma and shame often come into play when seeking assistance, this loss of face within Asian cultures might be of particular relevance in understanding why these groups often struggle to seek help.
How do we change the narrative around Asian Americans and food insecurity? Simply including Asian Americans—and disaggregating the ethnic groups—in food insecurity data collection and analyses would go a long way, as would investigating the connections between acculturation, primary language usage, employment, and income and access to food. But it’s also important to dig into the popular narrative around Asian Americans and food, especially when it comes to assumptions of abundance.
For example, inexpensive Chinese restaurant takeout is available almost everywhere, including in small towns. A number of Asian and Asian American chefs (almost exclusively male) have also been in the spotlight in recent years, from Martin Yan and Ming Tsai to David Chang and Roy Choi. Therefore, while Asian Americans are often associated with food, this association often occurs within a milieu of abundance and plenty—not in a context of deprivation and scarcity.
Asian food is also much more accessible than in years past: Sushi can be found in convenience stores or gas stations, while ramen, curry, and kimchi are all for sale at Walmart. And this thread of abundance runs through images of Asian Americans in popular culture as well. Recent Asian American movies—Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, The Farewell—all feature food in pivotal scenes that speak to families coming together, whether in celebration or mourning. Rarely do popular films show families struggling to get enough to eat, however.
It’s high time that we had a more accurate and balanced picture of Asian Americans and food. We should strive to address this erasure and imbalanced portrayal by speaking up and advocating for inclusion and representation, ranging from media coverage to social science and public health research. Only by recognizing that abundance and scarcity are both legitimate, interconnected parts of the Asian American story can we truly begin to refute the one‑dimensional model minority myth and begin address hunger and food insecurity in Asian American communities across the country.
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