This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we want to highlight the realities of food insecurity in the AAPI community. Though pop culture may have us believe that all Asian people are highly educated, wealthy, and high-achieving, the truth is that hunger and poverty don’t discriminate, and do in fact affect Pacific Islander and Asian communities all across the United States, including the ones we serve here in New York.
According to the latest census estimates from 2019, there are over 1 million people who identify as either “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander” in New York City. This accounts for approximately 14 percent of the city’s total population, signaling an immense and significant presence across the five boroughs. However, this presence isn’t monolithic, and is made up of dozens of different ethnic groups who may or may not have that much in common aside from checking “Asian” on the census. So, understanding what hunger looks like in the AAPI community is all about recognizing not only the diversity of the acronym itself, but the vast spectrum of need housed within it.
As a recent report from the Food Research & Action Center points out, the AAPI community is both the fastest growing racial group in the United States and the one with the fastest growing (and widest!) wealth gap. This means that the AAPI community is the most economically divided racial group in the country. Per the FRAC report:
“Compared to other racial groups, [AAPI] is small, so when it is included, it tends to be under sampled and erroneously treated as a homogeneous group. These missteps often lead to results that hide the high levels of inequalities and inequities between [AAPI] subgroups, and give a false impression that there are no or few [AAPI] individuals, families, and communities in need of SNAP and other social safety net programs.”
In New York City, the need for these social safety net programs is at an all-time high. According to Robin Hood (NYC’s largest poverty-tracking organization), poverty amongst Asian New Yorkers is the fastest growing in the city and is 15-25 percent higher than the city average. As of this writing, over 245,000 Asian New Yorkers are living in poverty, which constitutes nearly 25 percent of the city’s entire Asian population.
To combat these inequities, Food Bank partners with organizations across the five boroughs to help Asian Americans and new immigrants enroll in social safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). But, as Food Bank’s Network Resource Specialist Yuanjing “Jeff” Lin explained to me, enrollment isn’t always as easy as filing a simple form.
“The AAPI community encompasses so many different cultures, languages, and origins, so language can be a major roadblock for people,” he said. “Though the city provides some translations for languages spoken by AAPI people [currently Chinese, Korean, and Bengali], there are still so many languages and dialects that are left out.”
And even when these translations do exist, Lin says that they don’t always provide further clarity for people. Terms that appear on these forms (like, “household compensation,” for example) may be literally translatable, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily make sense in someone’s native tongue. Therefore, folks often have to have these forms explained to them regardless of the language they’re in.
As Lin puts it: “A lot of my work is translating the translation to people, trying to break it down into a simple conversation that they can understand.”
This work becomes even more difficult once the government sends back their official approval or rejection letters to the submitted SNAP forms. Why? Well, regardless of the form’s original language, these government letters almost always arrive in English.
“Clients will bring me piles of paper and say, ‘Can you let me know if I need to take action?’ You keep receiving papers from the government, but you don’t know what to do with them. Some of my clients bring their children with them, so first we talk to the kids and make them understand in English, then they have to try their best to explain these really complex topics in their own language to their parents... we have to go through multiple layers of barriers.”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of roadblocks, complications, and hurdles non-English speaking AAPI folks may face when trying to access the benefits they need. To surmount these obstacles, Lin says it’s imperative to invest in community-based organizations that can provide personalized translations and resources to different ethnic groups within the AAPI community.
One such organization is the Tzu Chi Foundation, a partner agency of ours that provides SNAP enrollment services to folks in Flushing, Chinatown, and Sunset Park. They also distribute culturally appropriate vegetarian meals and pantry goods on a recurring weekly basis. To learn more about how Tzu Chi brings specialized assistance to the Chinese communities they serve, check out the video below.
Hunger isn’t something that discriminates by race. It affects all sorts of people, including those who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander. By obscuring this fact with harmful stereotypes and misinformation, we miss out on the opportunity to serve those who need us most. But if we invest in robust translation services at the government level and prioritize funding for community-based organizations that can tailor their programming to the unique needs of their people, we can begin to address the growing issue of food-insecurity in the AAPI community.