LocationAlhambra , CA United States
When was the last time you thought about where the bok choy you purchased at your local grocery store came from? Who was the person that took the time to grow it? Were they local farmers of color? Was it grown sustainably?
These are all questions that the staff at Food Roots care about. Food Roots is a program run by Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement that connects local and sustainably grown Asian specialty foods to communities and businesses in Los Angeles while supporting local Asian American farmers. According to the 2012 Agricultural Census conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, there were 5,382 Asian farms operating on 785,658 acres of land in the state of California alone. Many Asian farmers (71 percent nationwide) are operating on small farms that are 50 acres or less and specialize in growing fruits, nuts, Asian specialty vegetables and nursery crops. Despite the number of small Asian farms and people looking for fresh and locally grown Asian specialty produce, there has been disconnect between these two groups.
Many of the communities that APIFM works in don’t have access to a local farmers’ market or a grocery store that carries locally grown produce items. If shoppers do have access to Asian markets such as 99 Ranch, 168 Market, H-Mart, or other grocers, it’s not always clear where the produce is grown or if there were pesticides used or who the farmer is. In addition, many low-income people in the Asian American community may not be able to afford the higher prices of local or organic produce.
There are programs that can help those in financial need, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as CalFresh, which can assist people with purchasing fresh produce. However, less than two percent of all Asian and Pacific Islanders nationwide who qualify for SNAP benefits are enrolled. One exception is Finola Rodriguez, a recent graduate from UC Irvine who shared her experience enrolling in and being on CalFresh.
“At first, I felt a little insecure about needing to sign up [for CalFresh], it was more of a mental block than an actual hurdle, but it was worth it in the end,” she said. The sign-up process required her to provide backup documentation about her financial status including rent and utility bills and pay stubs or timecards. She also had to go through some phone screenings, an in-person meeting with a social worker, and biannual income verification approvals. However, Finola shared, “I felt like the social workers were very sweet and wanted to help me despite the process being tedious.” Once Finola was enrolled in the program she quickly realized that she needed to prioritize using her benefits to purchase fresh produce and ingredients in bulk versus packaged or pre-prepared foods. “When I first moved to Alhambra it took a couple weeks of driving around to find out which [grocery] stores were around me… As much as I wanted to go to Whole Foods with my roommates, I also had to keep in mind I had very limited funds in my account and I could not afford the freshly pressed juice and pre-made sushi…”
Food Roots began in 2013 out of the need to address these issues and bring local, sustainably grown and culturally relevant produce to the community. Food Roots partners with local community institutions including restaurants, hospitals, schools, non-profits and other businesses to secure produce from our network of local farmers. All profits generated are then reinvested into free community programs, such as nutrition education and healthy cooking workshops, produce donations to low-income families and pop-up produce stands that offer discounted rates on local organic produce. To date, the Food Roots program has distributed over 22 tons of local produce, provided more than $67,500 in revenue to the farmers we work with and served over 5,000 families across L.A. County. You can find produce from Food Roots here in the San Gabriel Valley featured on the menu of GreenZone in Temple City or at the pop-up produce stand at Beardslee Academy, generously funded by City of Hope, in the city of Duarte. Finola now works at APIFM as a community health educator, taking the lessons she learned from her time on food stamps to lead nutrition education, healthy cooking and community gardening classes with kids at Castelar Elementary in Chinatown.
To find out if you’re eligible or to apply for CalFresh you can visit www.getcalfresh.org. It only takes about 10 minutes. Effective June 1st, 2019, all seniors or disabled people receiving Supplemental Security Income will also become eligible for CalFresh. This will enable hundreds of thousands of very low-income people to have more money to buy groceries. If you or anyone you know does not speak English fluently, the Department of Public Social Services, the L.A. County agency that approves applications and administers CalFresh benefits, is required by law to provide you with translation and interpretation services in your language.
Kyle Tsukahira is currently a Program Manager for Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, a Los Angeles based non-profit that cultivates healthy, long-lasting and vibrant Asian and Pacific Islander communities through grassroots organizing. He manages the Food Roots program which connects local and sustainably grown Asian produce to communities, institutions and businesses while supporting Asian American and other farmers of color in California.