For Asian Americans, food deserts encompass both income and culture

How Asian American farmers are helping low-income and elderly AAPI access fresh food and culturally specific ingredients during the pandemic.
Image: Kristyn Leach
Kristyn Leach, who runs Namu Farm in the Sacramento Valley, started a community-supported agriculture program to provide local Asian American families with culturally-relevant produce.Eugene Kan / MAEKAN

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By Taylor Weik

Every week, the local nonprofit API Forward Movement packs hundreds of 5-pound tote bags filled with locally grown produce like bok choy, napa cabbage, daikon and Chinese eggplant in their Downtown Los Angeles office. They deliver the bags to hospitals, churches and community groups throughout L.A. County, where local families in need of fresh vegetables amid the pandemic can pick them up.

For some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who live in Los Angeles’ food deserts — areas that may be abundant in fast-food chains but lack access to the fresh and affordable produce that grocery stores and food markets sell — the pandemic doesn’t just prevent them from having access to nutritious foods. There’s also a scarcity of the type of culturally relevant produce — a need that’s been particularly apparent amid California’s stay-at-home orders.

That’s where groups like API Forward Movement come in. Their work allows families to still be able to cook and consume their produce in culturally specific ways that are familiar to them, from tossing vegetables into soups and stews to pickling them for later.

Kyle Tsukahira and David Mey of API Forward Movement's Food Roots program pack CSA bags out of their office in Downtown Los Angeles.Ronnie Han

“There are a lot of folks who can’t afford these items or are unable to drive out to an ethnic grocery store to buy them,” Kyle Tsukahira, program manager for API Forward Movement’s Food Roots program, told NBC Asian America.

These needs shed light on the economic diversity in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in California, where AAPIs represent about 1 in 6 residents and are the fastest-growing racial groups in the state. While Asian Americans are often viewed as economically secure, according to the 2019 AAPI California Workers Survey, nearly 1 in 4 AAPIs in the state works but struggles with poverty.

“Some AAPI populations were at risk before, but as far as we can tell, the situation has gotten worse because of COVID-19,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, and the founder and director of AAPI Data. “We’re seeing a significant increase in unemployment, and there are many essential workers who don’t have the kinds of wages that are sufficient to meet their basic needs.”

Since COVID-19 began affecting businesses and families, API Forward Movement has focused its efforts on emergency food distribution through Food Roots. The organization buys fresh produce from Asian American farms in Los Angeles and the Central Valley to create community-supported agriculture (CSA) bags that are then donated to AAPIs throughout the county. This way, the organization is supporting both farmers and communities in need.

Some Asian Americans who have immediate food needs include older adults who are immunocompromised and unable to leave their homes, as well as low-income families and those who are unemployed. API Forward Movement is also trying to reach those who live in L.A.’s food deserts, such as Historic Filipinotown and some parts of the San Gabriel Valley. Food deserts tend to be in poorer neighborhoods that are in most need of affordable food.

During the pandemic, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders haven't been able to afford fresh food or access to culturally specific ingredients. AAPI farmers are stepping in.

“We want to supplement the food people have been getting from food banks, like canned items and prepackaged foods,” Tsukahira said. “We want to make sure people have access to not only those items, but fresh produce and items important to a healthy diet.”

API Forward Movement’s Food Roots began distributing 20 CSA bags per week and is now giving out up to 500 bags per week. The group has also raised more than $10,000 in donations and aims to continue the program through the rest of 2020 to support both farmers and at-risk AAPI communities.

“COVID-19 has shown the fuller experience of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders when it comes to not just documenting the rise in hate crimes, but also highlighting issues like access to health care and food insecurity,” said Ramakrishnan.

In Compton, another L.A. food desert, faith leaders at Dominguez Samoan Congregational Christian Church are trying to meet their Pacific Islander congregation’s needs for culturally relevant foods like fish, taro and bananas. These items have been difficult for people to find during COVID-19, especially at affordable rates. According to the AAPI California Workers Survey, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Californians are one of the main groups most likely to be working and struggling with poverty.

“Many of our congregation members have been impacted financially by this pandemic, so the economic challenges continue to be a struggle,” said Pausa Thompson, the church’s head pastor.

Social distancing guidelines have made it challenging for the church’s younger members to assist elderly members with daily tasks like driving to medical appointments and grocery stores. However, the church has come together to provide resources to those in need, including a food bank that has fresh produce and canned goods available for pickup.

The food bank is a community-minded effort that is, according to Thompson, essential to their culture.

“Samoan people are very spiritual and culturally invested in their families and immediate communities,” said Thompson.

The importance of connecting people with their ancestral roots through food is something Kristyn Leach, who runs the organic Namu Farm in the Sacramento Valley, has been thinking about since she started the farm in 2012. Partnering with the San Francisco-based restaurant Namu Gaji, which is owned by three Korean brothers, Leach grows various heirloom Asian crops to be used in the restaurant, many of which are from Korea.

“As a Korean American who didn’t grow up with Korean culture, I used to go to the market and trust that any produce labeled ‘Korean’ was the quintessential Korean product,” said Leach, who is a Korean American adoptee raised by Irish Catholic parents on Long Island.

On her small, 3-acre farm in the town of Winters, Leach grows Korean perilla, chili peppers, different kinds of Korean melons, soy beans, mustards, and more. It’s through cultivating her relationship with Korean produce that she realized how plants have historically been a lifeline for people, and she now wants to rebuild that lifeline for people in her community.

In addition to the produce she grows for Namu Gaji, Leach has also started a CSA program in partnership with other Asian American organizations to provide Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese American families in the area with her Korean and East Asian produce.

“COVID-19 has shut down schools and day cares, putting intense pressure on parents in our area who need to provide additional care for their children,” Leach said. “This CSA program is partially in response to that. We want to provide relief while also helping families learn about produce in a way that is tied to their traditions.”

Leach is also an advocate of seed sovereignty, or the rights of farmers to save, nurture and exchange their own seeds. Through not just supplying Asian American families with cultural produce, but educating them on seed and plant preservation, she hopes to sustain the relationships people have with their ancestral plants — plants that have been overlooked by Western standards and can’t be found in a typical grocery store.

“Here in the Bay Area and in other parts of California, having access to cultural produce is included in what food security is,” Leach said. “There are health disparities among Asian Americans that are tied to their lack of access to familiar foods. People deserve to have access to crops that are suited for the types of food they know how to cook.”

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