Food Aid Seeks to Address Hidden Problem of Asian American Poverty

Anti-Asian violence isn’t the only problem COVID-19 has amplified over the last year. The pandemic has also led to a dramatic increase in food insecurity and financial hardships. Although COVID-19 has impacted people from all walks of life, the crisis affected low-income Asian Americans disproportionately, shutting down many businesses that largely employ Asian Americans: restaurants, salons and small factories. Asian American women have been the hardest-hit by COVID-19 job loss. Coupled with a slew of violence and prejudice against the community, these economic issues are leading to a growing problem of poverty for Asian Americans. But aid groups across the country are seeking to help. 

An Invisible Problem

Food insecurity is not a new problem for Asian American communities, and the issue struggles to get the spotlight it deserves, largely due to a harmful phenomenon known as the model minority myth. On the surface, the stereotype that Asian Americans are all well-to-do, successful scientists and businesspeople might seem positive, but it is actually deeply racist. First, it invalidates and further shames Asian Americans struggling with poverty and hardship. Furthermore, it places other non-white communities like Black, Latinx and Native American/Indigenous people into a separate, negative box that upholds the idea of white supremacy. 

The truth is Asian American poverty is high and has been steadily climbing for years. For example, according to a 2018 report by the Asian American Federation, an estimated 245,000 Asian Americans lived in poverty in New York City in 2016. At that time, that number had grown by 44% over a period of just two years. A 2014 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority showed similar levels of poverty, revealing that Asian Americans comprised of nearly 26.6% of the lowest income earners in the city. These problems predate the pandemic but unemployment of Asian Americans due to COVID-19 is an ever-growing issue. 

In New York City, for example, unemployment for Asian Americans experienced the greatest increase out of all racial groups according to a recent Asian American Federation report. Immigrants who are undocumented, those who do not speak English well, and those without a college education are struggling more. A 2020 UCLA report found that 83% of Asian Americans working with a high school education or less filed for unemployment in California, compared to 37% for other races with the same education level. Undocumented immigrants also don’t get government assistance; according to Asian American Pacific Islander Data, one in seven Asian immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented. 

In addition, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes around the U.S. has also been contributing to the problem. The issue has been historically and currently underreported. Unprovoked assaults across the country have led California legislators to pass $1.4 million in funding to help fight discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. A new Oakland, California-based group “Compassion in Oakland” formed this month, seeking to connect elderly Asian community members with escorts to accompany them around the city and help them feel safe. On Feb. 23, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Queens Congresswoman Grace Meng also condemned anti-Asian hate crimes and announced moves to crack down on these racist attacks. 

Groups Seeking to Help

An NBC News feature on food insecurity in Asian American communities outlines the work of various organizations across the country working to address the issue. VietAid, a nonprofit that serves the Vietnamese population in Boston started distributing food to community members in March 2020, and now 300 people receive free groceries from the organization each week.

In Philadelphia, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC) told NBC it was distributing about 7,000 free meals a week and half of its recipients are Asian. In San Francisco, a group called Self-Help for the Elderly, which works mainly with Asian American seniors, serves around 2,400 meals a day to those in need. 

The NBC report points out that even groups that have not focused on food insecurity historically are working to help hungry community members. Chinese for Affirmative Action, based in San Francisco, works mainly with policy issues but as a result of the pandemic, has provided food assistance to about 750 people. 

Still, many of these groups are both overwhelmed with requests for aid and under-resourced. NBC reported that the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston received thousands of calls for help last year from community members inquiring about unemployment insurance, housing and workers’ rights and stimulus money.

“We’re dealing with two pandemics, one of violence and one of illness,” Winnie Yu, program director at Self Help for the Elderly told NBC.