By NINA KAHORI FALLENBAUM
Defining Asian America is a hard task. Agreeing on common issues is even harder. Our community is made up of dozens of languages, from Toisan to Lao, every tax bracket, and the newly arrived Karen from Burma to 10th-generation Filipino Americans.
Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is a love of food. Fancy food, cheap food, Grandma’s food, weird food, comfort food: our relentless desire to create and share good food is a common thread across all our differences.
Our passionate attention to food can be mixed blessing: sometimes we are stereotyped solely as “food people” when our community holds many, many more talents. At the same time, Asian American restaurants, chefs, food markets, farms and even food blogs have used that narrow window of opportunity to become some of our nation’s best. We have a lot to contribute.
Our involvement in American food has reached a critical juncture, however, and I think we can no longer be content eating away in our little corners, enjoying traditional foods and reinventing them as our tastes change. We must start getting involved with important forces that dictate the American food and agriculture system. I’ve joined with others from around the country to set up AAPIFoodAction, a website and information campaign on food and farm policy in the Asian American community. Here’s why we did it:
• Obesity is at an all-time high in the U.S., and increasing among Asian Americans. That either means our food is of poor quality, or we eat too much or it, or we don’t exercise enough. Or all of the above. Obesity leads to a host of health problems, and one study in California found that 52 percent of Japanese American men and 28 percent of Japanese American women are overweight. Sadly, the longer we are in the United States, the more health problems increase. To me, this indicates that there is an American problem we need to fix.
• Food safety incidents are also at an all-time high. Although Asian American family businesses are often targeted by local health departments over culture, hygiene and translation issues, the reality is that huge operations like Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing and imported fish operations are more often the source of contaminated food – which can affect far more people. Rather than panicking about food safety, we need to understand better why these incidents are occurring and design laws that keep consumers safe. Thinking long-term, we should reconsider if our “bigger, better, cheaper, faster” approach to food production in the U.S. is really the safest.
• The sweatshop production of food is increasing. And it comes under many different names: factory farms, consolidated distribution, a $2.13 minimum wage. American slaughterhouse and fast-food restaurant wages are one reason why food is so cheap: their workers are barely being paid. From Marshallese poultry farmers in Arkansas to Walmart checkers in California, there is a great cost to both the quality of food we’re eating and our collective moral consciousness when the food we’re eating is being produced under such exploitative conditions. This affects Asian Americans, whether we’re workers, business owners, farmers or simply eaters.
• Climate change is being partly caused by American agriculture. With large Asian American populations in coastal areas, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, we are already the feeling the affects of climate change. The “modern” way of producing food is based almost entirely on oil: to run machines, to produce fertilizer and pesticides and to transport food long distances. Emissions and runoff from chemical-based farming add to the environmental effects of what we buy at the grocery store. If we care about climate change and the environment, we have to consider American agriculture’s role in the problem – or the solution.
• Expansion of school lunch and other food assistance. I grew up eating public school lunch, and have fond memories of daily pizza pockets and donuts. Fortunately, I had my mother’s ochazuke (rice with hot tea) and broiled salmon to balance out all the fat, sugar and processed food I ate at school. As many of our Asian food traditions are being lost, so are their health benefits. Our tax dollars buy these meals, so we have a right to question their health value. With over 1 million Asian Americans currently enrolled in SNAP (the food stamp program), we have a stake in the quality and structure of government nutrition programs.
• Immigrant farmers need fair access to markets without discrimination based on race or language ability. This last point hits close to home for many Asian Americans, who first came to America to farm. Some were able to overcome obstacles and build profitable farm businesses, while others were not. Now a new generation of Asian immigrants has dreams of farming, and we need their expertise, enthusiasm and locally-grown food. They are Hmong, Burmese, Chinese, Laotian and Vietnamese. Overwhelmingly small farmers, they are disadvantaged by a system that favors very large farming operations. Yet they also need access to markets and a fair shake at the millions of dollars the U.S. government puts aside to assist farmers and the food industry.
Good and Bad News
All these issues, and many more, are covered by an important piece of legislation under debate right now in our nation’s capital: the Farm Bill.
Every five years Congress debates, then renews an omnibus bill to fund the Department of Agriculture, joining together the seemingly unrelated problems above into one massive spendathon totaling about $994 billion over the next decade. How that money is spent will determine whether we are prolonging problems or building solutions.
Should traditional commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat continue to receive heavy subsidies from the government? Can we continue to produce extremely cheap food without damage to the environment? How will imported food be priced, inspected and consumed? Should consumers know if what they are eating contains pesticides or genetically modified ingredients? These are all important questions that affect our families, community, nation and world.
Those of us in the “local food movement” believe bringing back some of our food production to local communities is a step in the right direction. It gives more of a chance to small producers and allows for greater transparency in food production.
We believe that local farmers should be able to supply fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches, and that government aid should be equally available to new immigrants and long-time Americans.
We believe organic farming should be promoted, and more effort should be made to decrease the environmental effects of food production.
Despite our differences, there’s much to agree on in a better, smarter Farm Bill. Imagine if just a quarter of our enthusiasm for food were channeled to changing the bill that affects every aspect of food production here and abroad: our impact would be felt.
Please consider joining a Farm Bill campaign in your local community as well as joining us at http://aapifoodaction.org.
Nina Kahori Fallenbaum studied food policy at UC Berkeley and Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, and was a JACL Fellow to the U.S. Senate. She worked on local and regional food initiatives at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2009-2011, and is now a Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She is a Yonsei Californian whose great-grandparents established Adachi Nursery in Richmond, Calif.