Ramen & Rice, But Definitely Not Refried Beans: What It Takes To Build A Food Pantry For Asians

Older Korean immigrants in Orange County line up for a food drive before the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Korean Community Services)

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Covid times call for comfort food.

But for some older Asian immigrants stranded in their homes, the pandemic means adapting to whatever donated food they receive.

Food pantry items such as refried beans and boxed mac-and-cheese are not what Phan Le would normally buy, but the 70-year-old Vietnamese immigrant in Garden Grove is willing to try anything.

"If you cannot provide [Asian] food, I'm ok with any kind of food," he said.

Tonya Pham, who used to work at a Vietnamese grocer, is more apt to find someone to pass off the non-Asian food to.

"Maybe because of the seasoning, there is a difference," said Pham, 62, who also lives in Garden Grove. "I like to eat Asian food because I'm Asian."


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ASIAN FOOD HARDER TO COME BY IN PANDEMIC

The pandemic has made it harder than ever to get culturally-specific items to needy Asian seniors in Orange County, home to the country's third-largest Asian population (after Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties).

Food banks are facing a dramatic spike in demand. One of the largest, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, said its staff is stretched too thin to set aside products for Asian clients anymore.

Rice is a common denominator in Asian diets, but different cuisines favor different lengths of grain. (joannamryan via Flickr)

Administrator Kelly Alesi recalled that pre-pandemic, Second Harvest gave boxes of dragon fruit to an Asian community organization to distribute among their seniors. But that's no longer possible.

"We're not holding any certain item for any certain organization," Alesi said. "If we have rice, it's being equitably distributed amongst all of our partner network. We don't have the capacity or the manpower to program specific things."

During the pandemic, Asian service organizations have been delivering food to seniors stranded in their homes. (LOVE)

The thought of Asian seniors struggling to prepare and eat food foreign to them saddened Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services based in Buena Park. For these immigrants, Asian food can "provide an extra level of comfort and security," she said.

Ahn thought about the sacrifices many made to move to the U.S. and work in service jobs or mom 'n' pops.

"Some of them made it, but there are a lot who live in senior apartments, who gave everything to their children and aren't left with much," Ahn said. "Some are lucky they have kids who could take care of them, but some aren't."

She started working on a plan.

LENTILS OR RED BEANS?

Her friend Tricia Nguyen leads the Santa Ana-based Southland Integrated Services, which serves Orange County's Vietnamese population. Nguyen was also having the impulse to do more to help seniors facing food insecurity.

Last month, the two started brainstorming with leaders of Chinese and Cambodian service organizations, as well as a Catholic nun who works with Vietnamese immigrants.

"And then next thing you know, we have over 12 organizations joining this cause," Nguyen said.

They decided to call their initiative LOVE — as in Love Our Vulnerable and Elderly.

The new LOVE initiative aims to help deliver culturally-appropriate food items to 5,000 Asian seniors in Orange County. (Photo courtesy of LOVE )

It would allow them to take donations from the public and to also pool their own resources to bulk purchase items. Their hope is to buy staples such as rice, soy sauce, fish sauce and noodles, using contacts they have at Asian grocery chains.

Because all the groups are serving Asians, there is a shorthand to their conversations about what to stockpile for their clients.

"You know, the South Asians want lentils. Some of us [East Asians] want red beans," Ahn said. "That's the sort of nuanced discussion that can only happen in an [Asian Pacific Islander] group."

"WE CAN RISE ABOVE THAT"

The coalition has also set up an online warehouse where member organizations inventory and share donations. Ahn has offered up packages of lo mein that were donated for her Korean clients who wouldn't know what to do with them, but perhaps a Chinese service organization could use them.

Nguyen said there was a conscious effort to make LOVE a pan-Asian effort. It's a way to unite at a time when Asians are being shunned and attacked verbally and physically because of the pandemic.

"We wanted to show that even though there's so much going on, like racism, we can rise above that do something great for our community," Nguyen said.

The community organizations are all bringing their donations to a site in Santa Ana on June 6 to assemble food and toiletries into boxes.

The plan is to distribute these packages to at least 5,000 seniors and to keep on supplying them for an indefinite period.

Ahn said she will feel better letting her seniors go to the Asian grocery store themselves once a vaccine is found.

Her wish for LOVE: "I hope this has a life until that moment."