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Food Insecurity among Immigrants in the U.S

By Dulce Ana Maria Camargo

The United States, often referred to as a “nation of immigrants” or the “land of opportunities”, has taken pride in its multiculturalism, diversity, and prosperity. At the same time, immigrants face diverse challenges once they arrive and one of the lesser known problems faced by immigrants is food insecurity. Surely, not all immigrants face the same level of food security, and their status may vary through time, but it is undeniable that being an immigrant can make food security a challenge.

First, to understand the impact of this issue among immigrants in the United States, food insecurity must be understood as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” It is important to focus on the wording of the definition presented by U.S. Department Of Agriculture, as it can bring light to why immigrants can face food insecurity. For example, focusing on the section where food insecurity is seen as a social condition, encapsules several of the reasons why immigrants can have low levels of food security. In fact, research has shown that culture plays a big role when it comes to food insecurity; as households with immigrant members might see receiving free food or food subsidies, as something shameful. Furthermore, food insecurity can also happen as a result of lack of  food options. From what is considered to be food and non-food, to production methods, or food practices, all of these can impose challenges to immigrants when trying to achieve food security. At the same time, this presents a challenge for safety net systems that offer relief and aid services.

Regardless of the cause for food insecurity, it is imperative to address the fact that immigrants are vulnerable to low levels of food security. Most compelling evidence is given by the International Rescue Committee, which stated that a survey made on immigrant communities in July 2020 found that 59% of the households reported that they do not have enough food to eat, and among households with at least one undocumented family member, that jumps to 78%. As undeniable contributors to the country’s economy, culture, and identity, it would be natural to think that there are multiple programs and services that would help the immigrant community face these challenges; this is not the case. 

The United States has fifteen federal nutrition assistance programs organized under four main groups that aim to help those who face food insecurity in the country. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Child Nutrition Programs, and Food Distribution Programs/USDA Foods. Despite the apparent variety of programs, immigrants are not eligible for most of them, increasing their chances of facing food insecurity. Overall eligibility for these programs is often decided state by state, and the parameters stipulated by individual states are often difficult to find or understand. 

For instance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has changed its eligibility requirements at a national level multiple times over the past years, especially when talking about immigrants. Before 1996, most lawfully residing noncitizens were eligible for (SNAP) on the same basis as citizens. Then, in 1996, most noncitizens became ineligible for SNAP.  Between 1994 and the early 2000s, eligibility requirements went back and forth regarding immigrants, until 2014, when The 2014 Farm Bill required states to use an immigration status verification system, in addition to the income and eligibility verification system for SNAP. The multiple changes made to the eligibility requirements, together with anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as the one promoted by the Trump administration, have discouraged immigrants to access these resources, even when they are eligible, due to fear of deportation or a finding that they are seen as a “public charge” Again, this works in favor of immigrants falling into food insecurity.

On the positive side, there are programs that support immigrants, regardless of their status. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), has stronger eligibility requirements regarding income and categorical  prerequisites (pregnancy, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children), than the residential ones. However, despite their efforts, it had not been enough to reach all immigrants; because, as with SNAP, immigrants fear deportation or accusations that they are a public charge if they access these resources

With this in mind, it is important to note that six states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Washington- have generously created programs that provide food resources to immigrants, regardless of their status. In their April report of 2021, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) explained that “these states use the existing SNAP infrastructure to deliver a SNAP-like benefit to immigrants, which is provided by and administered with state funds”. These efforts show that it is possible to improve and add to the existing safety net system to protect all people who reside in the United States. 

Overall, federally-funded programs have not been inclusive enough with immigrants. Due to their eligibility requirements, lack of culturally sensitive food options, and the anti-immigrant movements that have used these resources to instill fear; immigrants face additional challenges when trying to achieve food security. Becoming aware of these challenges, multiple organizations around the country have created programs to help immigrants combat food insecurity. To highlight these efforts, the following list includes some of the organizations (some located in the DMV area and others working at national level) that have designed programs to assist immigrant families who face food insecurity.

La Cocina VA, which aims to provide access and support to immigrant, low-income households, refugees, and other underserved groups, by providing assistance to good, affordable food options, among other things. 

Food Justice DMV addresses food insecurity in the DMV. They provide assistance through other organizations, and work to assist each family with all their needs from assisting with bedding, newborn chairs, and more. 

DC Central Kitchen has multiple programs designed to support members of vulnerable communities with nutritious meals, as well as affordable-fresh food,  among other things. 

International Rescue Committee IRC’s New Roots Program: Growing Good from the Ground Up helps refugees and other new Americans access land, tools and training to grow healthy food and nourish their families.

Center for Pan Asian Community Services CPACS’s Food Pantry is a supplemental food program for low-income Asian American families in metro Atlanta.

Freshfarm  markets and farmers accept SNAP/EBT, P-EBT, WIC and Senior FMNP checks. The Fresh Match program provides a dollar-for-dollar match on all federal benefits spent at market, helping shoppers take home more fresh and nutritious produce and local foods while creating and sustaining new revenue streams for local farmers and food producers.

Martha’sTable welcomes people to shop once per month for fresh produce and pantry items at their no-cost weekday markets located in the lobby at their SE & NW locations. 

Mary House offers a food pantry twice a month that provides basic ingredients and produce to families at no cost. Additionally, they give out weekend bags as a supplemental food program for children in our after school program.

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