From the wage gap to systematic racism to structural inequities, communities of color are at a disadvantage that contributes to food insecurity. The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are no exception. 

The Asian American and Pacific Islander community is extremely diverse with origins from countries encompassing south Asia, southeast Asian, east Asia, and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. 

Between 2000 and 2020, the AAPI community was the fastest growing minority population in the United States, growing from a population of roughly 10.5 million to nearly 19 million. By 2060, the number of Asian Americans is expected to reach over 35 million.

While food insecurity rates on average are lower among Asian Americans, studies show that the rates can vary widely by nationality, and especially those from recent immigration communities, are significantly higher. 

How Hunger Impacts AAPI Communities

Research on how hunger and other health disparities among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is severely lacking, especially compared to other minority groups. In fact, between 1992 and 2018, a meager 0.17% of the National Institute of Health’s budget was allotted for studying Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A potential reason for the lack of research can be partially attributed to the model minority myth –an assumption that Asians are a “model” minority group because of harmful stereotypes placed on them throughout history (more on this later).

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From the research that has been conducted on the AAPI community, the results provide some interesting insights. For example, compared to white Americans, Asian Indians, Japanese, and Filipinos were less likely to live in poverty, while Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese communities were more likely to live in poverty. 

It’s also been found that immigrants and those with immigrant parents from Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Nepal have the highest risks of food insecurity among the AAPI community. This is demonstrated by the fact that 30% of recent immigrants from Bhutan experience food insecurity.

A study conducted in 2018 in California found that the food insecurity rates varied widely among the ethnic groups of the AAPI community. This study focused on six Asian American subgroups residing in California, and determined that Japanese Americans have the lowest food insecurity at 2.2%, but Vietnamese Americans experience food insecurity at over 16%, compared to 10% of the population facing food insecurity.

Harmful Stereotypes of Asian Americans

Current stereotypes of Asian Americans are associated with being successful, driven, educated, and even wealthier than white Americans. These stereotypes are often portrayed in the media and society, falsely labeling Asian students as ‘too focused’ and ‘overachievers’.

That’s not to say that the AAPI community hasn’t also experienced racial discrimination, xenophobia, and hate crimes. In the past, stereotypes of Asian Americans caused distrust, dislike, and even panic among American citizens. These harmful labels began during the California Gold Rush, when the first Asian immigrants arrived in the United States.

The arrival of young Chinese men pursuing opportunities building the Transcontinental Railroad was viewed as a threat to the white workers, who viewed these immigrants as competitors for their jobs. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, which restricted immigration into America. 

The distrust of Asian Americans was only amplified in 1941 when the Japanese military bombed an American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After the attack, all Japanese Americans were declared ‘potential conspirators against the U.S. government’, and Executive Order 9066 was signed into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This order mandated all Japanese Americans be forcibly removed from their homes and placed in internment camps.

Even now, AAPI communities still experience racial discrimination, xenophobia, and hate crimes, like most minority groups. In March of 2021, the AAPI community experienced a devastating blow when a man shot and killed 6 Asian American women in Asian owned spas in Atlanta, Georgia. The murders were considered racially motivated by police. 

When COVID-19 landed in the U.S., it was quickly labeled the “Chinese virus”. According to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, more than 2,100 anti-Asian American hate crimes occurred between March and June of 2020, including physical attacks, verbal assaults, and harassment. 

To date there are only a limited number of studies done on food insecurity among AAPI communities, but research proposes foreign-born and native speakers experience food insecurity at higher rates. The language barrier prevents them from fully integrating into American society and brings challenges with transportation, employment and immigration status. In New York City, 1 in 4 Asian Americans live in poverty and half are limited in English. 

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An Insight into the Model Minority Myth

The model minority myth was formalized by sociologist William Petersen in an article he wrote for the New York Times, titled, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style”. 

In the article, Petersen writes “The history of Japanese Americans, however, challenges every such generalization about ethnic minorities…this is a minority that has risen above even prejudiced criticism. 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.”

Petersen claimed that Japanese Americans set themself apart from other ethnic groups, primarily Black Americans, because of their determination to succeed, their dedication to loved ones and spirituality, and their education levels. Soon after this article, the American viewpoint on the AAPI community shifted towards the model minority myth.

Lack of Access to Food Assistance Programs

While the AAPI community is the fastest growing racial group in the United States, the Food Research and Action Center found that eligible Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are less likely to use food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), available to them.

Yuanjing “Jeff” Lin, the Network Resource Specialist for the Food Bank for New York City, explains one of the main disadvantages he sees when aiding the AAPI community is the lack of these documents in the community’s native languages. “The AAPI community encompasses so many different cultures, languages, and origins, so language can be a major roadblock for people,” says Lin. “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.”  
 

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Despite high food insecurity rates among AAPI ethnic groups, from 18.5% of Laotion Americans experiencing hunger to as high as 38% of Hmong Americans living in poverty, participation rates in federal nutrition programs are considerably low. Although over 25% of Malaysian Americans live in poverty, only 3.2% enrolled in SNAP. 16.7% of Thai Americans live in poverty, yet their SNAP participation rate is 2.4%, and the SNAP participation rate for Vietnamese Americans is 3.8%, but 15.3% of the community live in poverty.

According to the Urban Institute, some of the reasons associated with the low participation rate in food assistance programs include the perceived stigma of receiving assistance, because they forgot to report benefits received throughout the year, because of a language barrier, or because they’re unaware of benefits other household members received.

What can we do to help?

A major way to help understand the impact of poverty on AAPI communities is to advocate for more research and policy changes. Encourage your lawmakers to direct emergency food distributions to the communities that need them most, and to increase funding to local providers who serve these communities.

By advocating for policy change for more accessible food to these communities, we are eliminating transportation difficulties, language barriers, and helping feed unauthorized immigrants who aren’t otherwise eligible for food assistance.

Additionally, consider donating culturally appropriate foods to food banks, especially in areas where Asian American Pacific Islanders communities are the largest. Learn more about what foods to donate from this article.

Stay educated on other communities impacted by food insecurity, such as the LGBTQ+ community, Native American communities, and women, or learn about hunger, and hunger and homelessness.