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Food pantry offers culturally specific items to immigrant communities amid pandemic

A Minneapolis nonprofit makes sure immigrant communities can access culturally specific food like basmati rice, vermicelli noodles and fish sauce during the pandemic.
Image: Ekta Prakash, a food shelf worker helping a low income community.
Ekta Prakash, a food shelf worker helping a low income community.Jun Cen / for NBC News

On a normal day, Ekta Prakash is busy working to make sure immigrant communities in Minneapolis and its northern suburbs can access culturally specific food, such as jasmine rice, vermicelli noodles and fish sauce. Now, she says, her days also involve answering calls from people such as an elderly blind woman who recently reached out in need. She had $8 and asked whether she should spend the money on taking the bus or on buying groceries.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the United States, Prakash, the executive director of CAPI USA, a food pantry, or food shelf, in the Minneapolis area, had to quickly switch gears to be able to serve the area's most vulnerable immigrant populations.

The new mission of the center, which was formerly called the Center for Asians and Pacific Islanders but changed its name to reflect its broader client base, is now making sure it can provide those same provisions as well as keep up with growing demands related to the pandemic.

“I think it's important that we keep doing what we're doing every day,” Prakash told NBC Asian America. “And I feel like the moment we stop doing it, I think it's going to be really bad and disastrous.”

Prakash said that amid the pandemic, the food shelf has become one of the biggest needs for the community. The organization now offers packed boxes of food for curbside pickup, and the staff is putting many extra hours to make it happen.

“People are stepping up and they don't care what time they have to work, but they are trying to make sure, if we can do anything at this moment to provide the resources, we will,” Prakash said.

It’s getting harder because culturally specific food is in lower supply. CAPI USA receives the boxes from Second Harvest, a food bank, and the CAPI USA staff adds fruits and vegetables. On top of that, helping people with limited English and technology access the resources they need is becoming more difficult.

“We are not fully ready to deal with this pandemic going the next few months, but I think we are doing our best at this moment,” Prakash said. “But we don't know what's going to happen after six months or so.”

CAPI USA was founded in 1982. It primarily served a large wave of people who settled in Minneapolis after the Vietnam War — especially the Hmong community. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has the highest Hmong population in the U.S. as of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Since then, the organization has broadened to serve more immigrant communities, such as Minneapolis’ vast Somali community. A majority of its clients are still Asian and because some community members speak limited English, CAPI USA’s diverse staff, which speaks a combined 11 languages, helps with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment applications.

Prakash, 44, joined the organization as a program manager in 2007, after moving to the United States from India seven years before. She came to the country and earned a second master's degree, but was only able to find work in retail because she didn’t have enough work experience. She became a receptionist at another nonprofit and eventually worked her way up.

“I became a program manager one day, and that was kind of my turning point that, you know, I want to lead an organization and I know I can do it,” Prakash said.

After working as a CAPI USA program manager for five years, she became its executive director in 2012. She said that coming to the U.S. as an immigrant made her feel that she didn’t belong, but her nonprofit work over the past two decades has changed that.

“I feel like I do belong here because I've made so much contribution in the community and I have so much connections, and I know people who are different like me, and they don't look like me, and they are my friends,” Prakash said. “And so I feel vested. I feel empowered.”

She said they’re working with other nonprofits and, amid the pandemic, have switched to a triage model, prioritizing those with the highest needs. The groups they work with provide aid to communities including West African, Latinx, Vietnamese and Karen people, an ethnic minority from Burma.

“I think that's where we are going to play an important role as the front-line workers, and have figured out how we can help them access the resources easily rather than kind of struggling and don't know where to go,” Prakash said.

Despite the hardships that come with being a nonprofit organization operating during a pandemic, Prakash said she won’t compromise on one thing: She won't lay off her staff. She said she would rather take a pay cut or furlough herself.

“I always had this in my background, in my kind of thinking process as a leader, that if I don't empower the people I'm working with, then I'm not a leader,” Prakash said.

This story is part of our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, "AAPI Frontline," honoring essential workers who are serving their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Read more here.

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