Why So Many Asian American Seniors Struggle With Food Insecurity

Photo: Getty Images / RyanJLane
When Chui*, a 72-year-old Chinese American woman from Southern California, goes grocery shopping, she does not always choose the foods she wants, but instead, what she can carry home on foot.

Chui, who retired over seven years ago, lives with her adult son. Her son works in a low-wage job and is often out, leaving Chui to stay alone at home most days. She takes care of her own meals. “Sometimes, when he isn’t busy, maybe he’ll give me a ride to the market to buy some food.”

For years, Chui’s diet consisted of Cup Noodles, bread, cereal, and congee with a bit of egg or meat and vegetables—cheaper items that she could carry on her own, she says. “Grocery shop was too far, and I gave up my driver's license,” she says.

Experts In This Article
  • May C. Wang, DrPH, May C. Wang, DrPH, is a professor in the department of community health sciences at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
  • Stella S. Yi, PhD, MPH, Stella S. Yi, PhD, MPH, is an assistant professor at the department of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Chui is sadly not the only elderly Asian American who struggles with access to food. While approximately 7 percent of Americans aged 60 and older face food insecurity—meaning they lack consistent access to enough nutritious food—Asian seniors like Chui are particularly vulnerable. Almost half of Asian American seniors in New York City were considered food insecure in 2014, compared to one in 10 senior New Yorkers overall. In California, where Chui lives, 10 percent of Chinese people, 10 percent of Korean people, and 22 percent of Vietnamese people aged 45 and older are food insecure. (It should be noted that these statistics—the most recent available—don’t take into account the devastating effects of the pandemic on poverty and food insecurity.)

These are real, serious issues facing the elderly Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community—so why are they so often left out of food insecurity conversations and aid?

Why so many AAPI seniors are food insecure

Despite the harmful “model minority” stereotype that surrounds Asian Americans—the imposed expectation that Asians, regardless of circumstance, be smart, wealthy, submissive, and hard-working—the reality is that Asian American seniors are slightly more likely to live in poverty compared to all American seniors. This might seem surprising to outsiders, given that Asians overall have a higher medium income than other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. But there are significant wealth disparities within this community that greatly affect seniors (as well as specific ethnic groups).

Part of the issue for AAPI seniors is the cost of living. California, New York, and Hawaii, which boast thriving Asian American communities, draw 54 percent of Asian seniors. However, the cost of living in these states is high, which makes people who are already cash-strapped struggle to afford food, says May C. Wang, DrPH, professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of California Los Angeles.

There is also a significant wealth gap between those in the AAPI community and white people. Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, fewer Asian Americans have retirement and Social Security income, according to data from the AARP. This was true for Chui, who did not have a retirement fund or other savings when she retired. Asian Americans who are eligible for social security benefits or retirement funds often have much less compared to other groups, especially if they are first-generation immigrants. As a result, many Asian American seniors living in poverty rely on Supplemental Security Income alone, which in Chui’s case amounted to $900 per month to support herself and her son.


Only 3.7 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are Asian, despite the fact that 9.7 percent of Americans living in poverty are Asian.

The coronavirus pandemic has created further obstacles keeping Asian American elders from consistently accessing food. Seniors like Chui who do not drive also have to consider the need for public transport against the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, Dr. Wang says. Additionally, the pandemic-induced economic downturn has disproportionately affected the AAPI community (particularly when it comes to unemployment), which makes affording food all the more difficult. AAPI seniors, in particular, might not even want to go to the grocery store for fear of being harassed or harmed due to rampant COVID-fueled xenophobia, adds Stella Yi, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the department of health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. This isn’t just a hypothetical threat: Elderly people have been primary targets of anti-Asian hate crimes around the U.S. in recent weeks.

What is being done to address food insecurity among Asian American seniors?

To address food insecurity in the United States, the federal government runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. This program provides a monthly stipend to qualifying low- or no-income individuals and families for groceries. (As of September 2020, the most recent data available, 37 million people in the U.S. received SNAP benefits.)

However, participation in SNAP is low among Asian Americans of all age groups, even if they are eligible. In June 2020, just 3.7 percent of SNAP participants identified as Asian, even though 9.7 percent of all Americans living in poverty are AAPI (compared to 9 percent white and 21.2 percent Black). Limited English proficiency contributes to this issue, as it hinders Asian seniors' ability to access nutrition assistance (it might make it harder for them to fill out paperwork, for example, or be able to call a food bank or government office for assistance). Dr. Wang adds the low SNAP participation rates may also be attributed to an onerous application process or lack of clarity around application questions or what SNAP is. Some people also may not want to be labeledwelfare recipient due to societal stigma. (Dr. Wang notes that further research is required to understand the barriers to participation specifically among the senior population in the Asian American community.)

Besides SNAP, the Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs provide “Meals on Wheels,” a meal delivery service, and congregate meals, which are social dining experiences held in senior centers, churches, or senior housing communities, for any senior over 60 in need. “In communities where there are more Asians, these programs cater to the needs of Asian Americans, making sure that the congregate meals are culturally appropriate and having activities that are conducted in various Asian languages,” says Dr. Wang. “I've seen some of them here in California, but the extent of availability across the United States, I don't know.”

Asian American community organizations and social service agencies are often the only points of support for these individuals, says Dr. Yi, who also researches policies and programs designed to address dietary disparities among immigrant communities. “They may be the only ones that have the language capacity to support them.” Asian American community organizations and grassroots efforts are recognizing this gap, such as Heart of Dinner (which delivers food to Asian elders in New York City) and the South Asian Council for Social Services’ food pantry in New York, Dr. Yi says.

“[These organizations are] providing culturally appropriate meals that have all the different kinds of things that Asian American seniors want to eat,” Dr. Yi says. Meals are served at senior centers or faith organizations, like mosques or churches, to reach as many as possible.

Sadly, such organizations are disproportionately underfunded because of that same model minority stereotype, says Dr. Yi. This stereotype portrays Asian Americans as suffering little health and financial difficulties because of their academic and career achievements, which means public assistance programs for this community, such as food relief, are not considered a funding priority.

What you can do to help AAPI elders in your community

Dr. Yi believes it is valuable to advocate for the increase of SNAP benefits for older adults within minority communities, such as calling your state lawmakers and Congressional representatives. She also encourages donating to and volunteering with your state’s small community organizations and grassroots efforts. Initiatives like the aforementioned Heart of Dinner, Emergency Stir Fry Meals on Wheels from Home Crest Community Services, and Korean Community Services of New York are some examples in New York City.

Delivering groceries or home-cooked meals to neighbors or loved ones is also an option, although Dr. Wang advises not to provide too much at once, in case the elder stores leftovers in a manner that poses a food safety risk.

Finally, never underestimate the power of striking up a conversation and informing an Asian American elder about the food programs in your town or city. For Chui, she found out about the food assistance program she is currently a part of through someone at church.

“Three years ago, I took ESL class [English as a Second Language] at church, [and] my classmate told me to go to the Asian Youth Center (AYC).” A few years prior, she sought out a Salvation Army food bank, but it was far from home, and though her friend offered to drive her every week, Chui felt bad for imposing and stopped attending regularly.

Now, she collects a grocery pack from AYC weekly, which provides her with 30 meals. “Every week I take the bus, I don't want to bother somebody.” After the 10-minute ride, Chui walks 15 minutes to the center.

Because of the coronavirus, she makes an appointment to pick up the food pack. A volunteer there speaks Mandarin Chinese, Chui says, and another volunteer speaks Spanish. She gets more Chinese food here compared to the Salvation Army’s food bank. “We get good food: beef, chicken, eggs, vegetables, fruit, many different things. Sometimes some rice, sometimes strawberry, kiwi, avocado. It’s a lot!” she says, laughing.

“I tell my friends that AYC is so nice. If you’re low income you should go there and they will help you,” she says. “They give me good food that I can carry and walk with.”

*Last name has been withheld for privacy reasons.

For more information about how you can support the fight against food insecurity, visit the Food Research & Action Center’s website.

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