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.