The Hidden Problem of Food Insecurity Among Asian Americans

by NYC Food Policy Editor
by Regan Elyse Murray

Although research has shown that food insecurity disproportionately impacts minority populations, relatively little attention has been paid to its prevalence among Asian Americans. The USDA defines food insecurity as the long-term lack of regular access to nutritious foods. Experiencing food insecurity places people at an increased risk for diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension, as well as for conditions linked to stress such as depression and anxiety.

The lack of information about food insecurity among Asian Americans, therefore, raises key questions about the physical and mental health of the nation’s fastest-growing minority population. Finding the answers will require dismantling the ‘model minority’ myth that has led many researchers as well as average Americans to assume that few Asian Americans would have trouble affording or accessing the food they need.

A Brief History of Asian Immigration

These days, Asian Americans are generally perceived as a national success story. Many see them as more driven, better educated, and wealthier than even White Americans. Numerous stereotypes and media depictions, from the idea of the “tiger mom” to films like the 2018 blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, support this perception. 

Asian Americans were not always seen this way, however. Young Chinese men, drawn by the California Gold Rush and work opportunities building the Transcontinental Railroad, were the first Asian immigrants to the U.S. Their arrival incited panic among White settlers, who perceived them as dirty, immoral, and competitors for jobs. Within a few decades, White Americans had used violence to push the Chinese to society’s margins and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to stem their immigration.

American’s fear and suspicion of Asian immigrants continued into the 20th century, with their paranoia reaching new heights in 1941, after the Japanese military bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. In the hysteria that ensued, all Japanese Americans were considered potential conspirators against the U.S. government, and, reacting to national pressures, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated that Japanese Americans be forcibly removed from their homes and placed in internment camps.

As the recent uptick in hate crimes has shown, racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans persist in visible and violent ways to this day. The question remains, however: how did the common conception of the industrious, high-achieving Asian American emerge from this history?

The answer begins, in part, with a New York Times story.

The Creation of the Model Minority Myth

“By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born Whites,” wrote sociologist William Petersen in a 1966 article for The New York Times. In the piece, titled, “Success Story, Japanese-Style,” Petersen formalized what has become known as the ‘model minority’ myth, claiming that Japanese Americans differentiated themselves from other minority groups, particularly Black Americans, by their determination to succeed, drive to get educated, and dedication to family and religion.

Peterson’s article presented what, to many readers, would have been a comforting story in an era of increasing civil rights agitation. It told of a minority group that upheld traditional American values instead of—as many White Americans saw it at the time—trying to tear them down through activism. The model minority myth soon came to dominate the way most people in the United States viewed and discussed not only Japanese Americans but all people of Asian descent.

The myth proves all the more enduring because it is, to some extent, true. Asian Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic or racial group. They are also the most educated group, with 29 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher as compared to 19 percent of White Americans.

Among the communities the myth most accurately describes are East Asians, a factor that has also contributed to its spread. Because these subgroups—Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Americans—have come to dominate what people think of when they think of Asian Americans, the model minority myth has become a stereotype for the population as a whole.

Diversity Among Asian Americans

The term “Asian American” obscures the heterogeneity of the Asian American population. It was born out of the civil rights era at the University of California Berkeley, where Petersen taught. In 1968, just two years after he published his article, graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka first used the phrase in the name of their civil rights group, the Asian American Political Alliance. They intended the inclusive term to draw broader support for their struggle and afford it a place in the national conversation, alongside other movements such as those representing Black and Native Americans and Chicanos.

Although the term has proved useful in fostering political solidarity, it also hides profound social divisions among the groups that fall under its umbrella. Asian Americans, who make up roughly 7 percent of the U.S.’s population and 16 percent of those living in New York City, are an incredibly diverse population, including approximately 50 ethnic groups speaking dozens of languages. The Asian American community only continues to grow in size and complexity, with 81 percent of their population growth since 1970 owing to immigration. 

These immigrants came in two major waves. The first wave began to arrive after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased restrictions on immigrants from Asia. Most of these immigrants, many of them refugees from war-torn populations like the Vietnamese and Hmong, settled into low-paying jobs. Then, the signing of the Immigration Act of 1990 spurred the second wave of immigration, offering H-1B visas to skilled workers and attracting predominantly Indian Americans, who took high-paying jobs in the tech and medical sectors.

The Hidden Poverty Problem

Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that the demographic differences between these two waves of immigration have had lingering effects, contributing to a significant wealth disparity between South and East Asian Americans and those of Southeast or Central Asian heritage. The researchers’ findings reveal a poverty problem hiding behind the model minority myth.

Pew showed that Asian Americans have overtaken Black Americans as the racial group with the highest income inequality. Although income inequality continues to grow among all Americans, the income gap between the Asian Americans making the most money and those making the least proves notably stark. Indian Americans have the highest earnings on average at $119,000 per year. Burmese Americans earn the lowest income, an average of only $44,000 annually. Several ethnic communities experience poverty at a frequency that is more than double the 15 percent poverty rate experienced in the U.S. overall. Thirty-three percent of Bhutanese and 35 percent of Burmese Americans live in poverty.

These findings raise red flags about the food security of many Southeast and Central Asians living in the US. Individuals who experience poverty are less likely to be able to afford enough nutrient-rich food for themselves and their families. Lower-income households are also more likely to live in areas where high-quality food is more difficult to obtain.

Research on Food Insecurity Among Asian Americans

To date, there have been only a limited number of studies on food insecurity among Asian Americans. Between 1992 and 2008, only 0.17 percent of the National Institute of Health’s budget went to studying Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Public health experts attribute this oversight to the model minority myth and the assumption that Asian Americans experience few poverty-related issues. 

One of the few studies on the issue looked at six Asian American subgroups living in California. The study found that rates of food insecurity varied widely among ethnic groups. Japanese Americans had the lowest rates of food insecurity at 2.2 percent. Four of the other groups—South Asian, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino Americans—all experienced food insecurity at rates below the national average of 10.5 percent. Among Vietnamese Americans, however, food insecurity increased to 16.42 percent. This divergence relates positively to the income gap described by the Pew data. Researchers further proposed a connection between a group’s level of integration into American society and their food security, finding that members of populations with higher rates of food insecurity were more likely to be foreign-born and speak a foreign language at home. 

In short, the study suggests that food insecurity is a particularly serious problem among the Asian American communities that are most economically disadvantaged and marginalized. Furthermore, members of these communities tend to experience a particular set of difficulties that are hinted at by this initial research. These can include undocumented status and a lack of English language skills, both of which make it more difficult for individuals to hear about resources and impede or disqualify them from accessing those that are available. 

Notably, this project did not include Bhutanese or Burmese Americans, the subgroups of Asian American population with the lowest incomes. Therefore, we can expect that they contend with even greater challenges than those that were included in the study. In light of what this study does and does not tell us, it is clear that we need to devote additional research and policy attention to food insecurity among Asian Americans.

Impact of the Pandemic

The need for research proves all the more pressing as we deal with the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nationally-representative study published in September 2020 found that Asian American households experienced a 14 percent increase in food insecurity during the first few months of lockdown. While this number is only marginally higher than the 13 percent increase among White Americans, the researchers estimated that food insecurity among Whites was more likely to be temporary and that the gap would widen over time. 

This rise in food insecurity results from a combination of factors. Asian Americans were disproportionately impacted by pandemic job losses. Many worked in restaurants, salons, and other sectors where jobs evaporated during quarantine. In New York City, unemployment among Asian Americans rose to 25 percent in 2020, more than that of any other racial group.

In addition, many Asian Americans have struggled to make use of public aid. A sizable number, including an estimated 137,000 Asian Americans living in New York, are unauthorized immigrants. This makes them ineligible for federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and also excluded them from participating in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), an initiative that gave emergency nutrition benefits to the parents of children who would normally qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Act.

Asian Americans are also at a disadvantage when it comes to relying on private and charitable help, including from food banks. They are more likely to encounter transportation challenges or lack the schedule flexibility to wait in line. And even those who can access food banks sometimes cannot make use of them because they do not stock culturally-appropriate foods.

The reinvigoration of anti-Asian sentiment that accompanied the emergence of the pandemic seems to have further discouraged Asian Americans from going out, even to purchase needed food. Many Americans, including former president Donald Trump, have blamed the Chinese for the outbreak and even called the SARS-CoV-2 the “China virus” or “kung flu.” More than any other ethnic group, Asian Americans have become the targets of a surge in violent attacks. In New York City there have been hundreds of harassment reports and a more than nine-fold increase in actual hate crimes targeting Asians in 2020. When chronic underreporting is also considered, the scale of the problem becomes even greater. Now, more than ever, the health of Asian Americans depends on understanding and addressing the myriad obstacles to food security they face.

Working Towards Solutions

Given the number of difficulties and unknowns involved, addressing the issue of food insecurity among Asian Americans may seem overwhelming. That does not mean, however, that we should hesitate to act. Many individuals and groups have made notable impacts by looking past the model minority myth to find vulnerable Asian Americans. 

For examples of successful direct action, we can turn to a Bay Area phone tree that has been providing information about sourcing sticky rice, applying for unemployment, and getting vaccinated to thousands of Lao immigrants throughout the pandemic. Or we can look at the nonprofit, VietAid, which has been delivering free groceries to hundreds of members of Boston’s Vietnamese American community since the spring of 2020. These initiatives make a difference by devoting their time and energy to reaching Asian Americans as close to where they live as possible, even at their front doors.

Those who want to contribute to mitigating hunger and food insecurity among Asian Americans can begin by adopting this localized approach. That might mean volunteering at food pantries or soup kitchens in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, Flushing, or Jackson Heights, that are home to large Asian American populations. It could even mean supporting your local Asian-owned restaurants and businesses.

Broader policy changes at the city, state, or national level also have a role to play in this effort. We can begin by encouraging policymakers to direct emergency food distribution to the communities experiencing the highest rates of food insecurity and to increase funding to the small providers who serve them. Localized distribution reduces the likelihood that Asian Americans have difficulty traveling to the site or encounter linguistic barriers when they get there. It also helps to address the undue burden of food insecurity on unauthorized immigrants, as individuals can typically receive food from community partners regardless of their immigration status. Reallocating government resources, alongside other policy shifts, will help to address hunger and food insecurity among all populations, including Asian Americans.

Ultimately, however, fully tackling the problem will require devoting more research to assessing the unique public health concerns and food security dilemmas confronting Asian American communities. Only then will we have the information we need to come up with policies that will improve the food security of their members long-term.

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