Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Things We Eat

community-garden

Community gardens can be instrumental in providing a way for low-income immigrant communities to gain food security. (Photo: Alison Hancock/Shutterstock)

Why So Many Children of Immigrants Are Going Hungry

• April 17, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Community gardens can be instrumental in providing a way for low-income immigrant communities to gain food security. (Photo: Alison Hancock/Shutterstock)

Many people who qualify for government assistance are afraid to ask for it.

Last Tuesday, University of Arizona student and U.S. citizen Cynthia Diaz started a hunger strike with three other immigration activists outside the White House. She hopes her actions will bring the eventual release of her mother, who has been detained and is awaiting a deportation hearing, and greater attention to the plight of immigrant families.

While Diaz’s hunger strike may spur action on deportation, perhaps it will also draw attention to hunger itself within the immigrant community. The children of immigrants are among the fastest growing population of children in the U.S., and they are the most vulnerable to food insecurity, which means that they often lack access to safe, nutritious food in sufficient quantities.

Some government assistance is available in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP), but immigrants tend not to access it. A 2011 National Center for Children in Poverty report shows that immigrant families with children, 19 percent of whom live below the poverty level, tend to access federal food assistance at significantly lower rates than do native families, because they are less likely to realize they qualify for it or are leery of providing information to the government, even when they are residing in the U.S. legally. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health confirms this: “Although 93% of children of immigrants are US citizens and are therefore eligible for federal assistance, such programs often do not reach these children.”

Grace, a Somalian refugee, told me that even though her three children often went to bed without dinner, she was afraid that the U.S. would blame her for taking “too much help” and deport her.

As an anthropologist, I study the lives and rights of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. In my 2011-13 study of refugees in Western New York, I found that they were skeptical and fearful about applying for food assistance even though their case workers helped enroll them in SNAP. Grace, a Somalian refugee, told me that even though her three children often went to bed without dinner, she was afraid that the U.S. would blame her for taking “too much help” and deport her. She also feared that at a future date she would get a bill for the free lunches her children ate at school.

Hopefully immigration reform will diminish the fear and isolation that keep immigrant families from accessing government initiatives like SNAP, but in the meantime, people need help now.

Much like those who are coming together to support the hunger strike of Diaz and others in demanding “Not One More” deportation take place until Congress seeks immigration reform, we need groups in communities nationwide to come together to help their hungry neighbors. They can do so through efforts like community gardening and food donations.

Community gardens can be instrumental in providing a way for low-income immigrant communities to gain food security, improve neighborhoods, and make connections outside of their immigrant groups. This has happened in Seattle, for example, where I used to work with immigrants and refugee students at a local community college. Beginning in the 1990s, Seattle’s community gardens network began Cultivating Communities, which aimed to equalize access to community gardening by creating market gardens for immigrants. Today, Cultivating Communities has 17 gardens, including a terraced hillside garden created by Cambodian immigrants, two community-supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises that provide supplemental income for some families, and three youth gardens in four of the city’s housing projects. The gardens provide culturally appropriate food for 120 families, and the larger network of community gardens donated more than 29,000 pounds—58,134 servings of produce—with a value of approximately $73,000, to neighborhood food banks last year.

When given the opportunity, most immigrants are eager to grow food to supplement their diets and to sell locally. Of the 100 refugees and newcomer immigrants in upstate New York I met for a recent two-year anthropological study, 89 grew some of their own food at home and 50 grew food in community gardens or through programs offered by local organizations. Also, 32 shared or sold portions of their harvests to neighbors, restaurants, and markets. One Burmese mother of four said that more than half of her family’s food came from their two community garden plots. So great was the demand by the refugees and newcomers to grow food that the area’s largest refugee resettlement agency has recently partnered with a county cooperative extension to create an urban farm managed by refugees.

We can also help immigrants from our own backyards. We can donate to food banks or harvest food in our own gardens to donate to agencies that provide food and other support to immigrants. Where I live in Arizona, anybody can volunteer with the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, which harvests, prepares, and preserves 75,000 pounds of donated fruits and vegetables. They sell items like prickly pear jam and desert apple sauce at stores and farmers markets, and the money raised goes to help refugees.

To be sure, immigrants are not the only group in need of food support in the U.S. According to Feeding America, one in six Americans face hunger. In 2012, 49 million people in the U.S., nearly one-third of whom are children, lived in food-insecure households. Even college students, the Washington Post recently reported, are increasingly going to bed hungry.

Immigrants, however, face unique challenges like language barriers, limited transportation, and concentration in poor neighborhoods, which are often “food deserts”—places without easy access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food, but with fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food choices. Thus, targeted efforts to create sustainable food security in immigrant communities are needed, especially in states like New York, California, Texas, and Arizona, where there are large percentages of immigrants and refugees.

With spring and gardening season here, it’s the perfect time to join me in donating to food banks, starting or participating in community gardens or harvesting programs, and help reduce hunger among immigrant families.

Jill Koyama
Jill Koyama is an assistant professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

More From Jill Koyama

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.