Not your model minority: Asian Americans face food insecurity

By Ruyu Liu, MS, RD

Have you seen “Crazy Rich Asians”? The hit movie attracted millions of audience with the extravagant story of a well-educated Asian American professor visiting her boyfriend’s ultra-rich Singapore family.  While the movie made history for Asian American representation in Hollywood, it might have exemplified the “model minority myth”, a perception that Asian Americans are healthy, wealthy and overall successful. This myth is harmful because lumping numerous Asian American subgroups together masks the health disparities and the unique struggles and challenges that each subgroup faces – such as food insecurity.

What does “Asian American” mean?

The Asian population is the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the US, increasing  by 81 percent between 2000 and 2019. The Asian American population is diverse and heterogeneous. “East Asians” are people from China (including Macau and Hong Kong), Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Mongolia; “South Asians” include people from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; and “Southeast Asians” represent people from Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Food Insecurity Among Asian Americans 

The prevalence of food insecurity varies across all these Asian American subgroups. A study found that Vietnamese-American adults had the highest rate of food insecurity (16.4%) while Japanese-American adults had the lowest rate (2.3%) among all Asian Americans in the study. This is not surprising if we consider the varying demographic characteristics of Asian American subgroups. For example, 70% of Asians had a Bachelor’s degree or greater. However, this percentage drops to 27.8% among Vietnamese. The median household income spanned from $90,528 for all Asians to $53,887 for Koreans. 

The study also found that few Asian Americans took advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest federal food assistance program. For example, the SNAP participation rate among Thai Americans and Malaysian Americans were only 3.2% and 2.4 %, respectively. This is much lower than the US overall SNAP participation rate of 13.7%, even though Malaysian Americans and Thai Americans had higher poverty rates than the overall US population! 

Why do so few Asian Americans benefit from this food assistance program? Some of the barriers to participation include lack of information about the program, unclear eligibility criteria, fear of consequences to their immigration status, no support in their native languages, lack of in-language support, and social stigma. These barriers make food insecurity among Asian Americans even worse. Therefore, SNAP and other food assistance programs must increase outreach in Asian American communities, especially the ones that are most affected by food insecurity and poverty.

Here’s what food insecurity can do to a person

Prolonged food insecurity has many negative health consequences. In children, it is associated with anemia, cognitive problems, anxiety, and poorer general health. In adults, it can mean diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poor sleep. 

The truth is, we still don’t know much about food insecurity among specific Asian American subgroups due to a lack of research. Many health studies report data on Asian Americans as a single group. This generalization could mask the unique health risks among different subgroups. The first step to combat food insecurity and health disparities in Asian American communities?  Acknowledge the diversity and complexity beyond that single “Asian-American” box on demographic questionnaires. 

Peer-edited by Anastasia Yandulskaya, PhD Candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology

Picture credit: kazuend on Unsplash

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