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Asian American food aid expands to address hidden hunger during pandemic

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In the San Francisco area, Self-Help for the Elderly delivered almost 5,000 meals each day during the height of the pandemic last spring. The nonprofit, which works mostly with Asian seniors, still serves around 2,400 meals every day.

Food insecurity has long been a problem in Asian American communities, “but it was almost impossible to convince any of the mainstream hunger relief organizations that this was real and urgent,” said Nguyen.

Contrary to the common misperception of Asian American wealth and success, poverty among Asian Americans in the U.S. is high. In New York City, for instance, 1 in 4 Asians live in poverty and half have limited English, according to the nonprofit Asian American Federation (AAF). In Boston, meanwhile, poverty among Asians was nearly 26.6 percent compared to 23 percent among the city’s Black population, according to a 2014 report from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

“Asian poverty statistics make people gasp. There’s a myth about wealthy Asian Americans that really stymies our community,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of AAF in New York.

In New York City, unemployment among Asians soared to 25 percent last year — the largest increase among all racial groups, according to an AAF report published last fall. In California, 83 percent of Asian Americans with high school degrees or less filed unemployment claims, compared to 37 percent for non-Asians, according to a report from UCLA researchers last July.

Six of AAF’s nonprofit partners increased their existing senior food programs, so that last year they distributed food more than 19,000 times to 2,800 Asian senior citizens.

Lisette Le, executive director of VietAid, also pointed out that children who qualified for free school lunch also have fewer options to eat while schools remain closed.

In addition to distributing groceries, VietAid, whose food program is funded by the city of Boston and other sources, serves take-out meals to more than 125 families each day with its partner Boston YWCA. At the start of the pandemic, VietAid was delivering food to as many as 125 senior citizens each week.

VietAid, a Boston nonprofit, distributes free groceries and meals to the Vietnamese community.Amy Yee

VietAid also partnered with the Boston nonprofit Chinese Progressive Association and other groups last year to hire 78 community members to prepare and distribute meals.

Even Asian community organizations that previously didn’t work on hunger relief have now pivoted to food aid because of urgent demand. Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), a San Francisco nonprofit that normally works on policy issues, such as immigration and education, now offers food aid. During the pandemic the group has provided food assistance for about 750 people.

“Food, housing and work are top concerns,” said Annette Wong, CAA program manager. She recalled a Chinese man who called CAA in tears, frustrated after waiting hours in line at a food pantry.

The Cantonese speaker “was at his wits’ ends. Some people are in desperate and dire situations,” said Wong.

But it’s unclear how long the program will last. Funding for CAA’s food aid, which comes from the city’s Give2SF online donation program, will soon end.

One important benefit of local community organizations doing this work is that they can bridge the language barriers that are a major hurdle for getting assistance and can help navigate bureaucracy that is frustrating even for native English speakers. Seamaac, for instance, works with people who speak 22 languages and dialects. Overcoming cultural barriers like shame — common in Asian cultures — is another challenge.

But community organizations are often underresourced and overburdened. Last year the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston was overwhelmed with more than 4,000 calls for help about unemployment insurance, housing and workers’ rights and stimulus funds. That’s a 500 percent increase in calls compared to 2019, according to the association.

Greater Boston Legal Services doesn’t normally process individual unemployment insurance applications. But the legal aid nonprofit, which has an Asian outreach unit, shifted resources and helped clients with about 1,000 unemployment claims last year.

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