AAPI communities have faced extensive exclusion and discrimination in the US food system, which has been virtually unsung. This includes segregation from the realms of agriculture and food production, but also extended to xenophobic assumptions of culturally-relevant eating practices.

A Long History of Discrimination: AAPI-Americans and the US Food System

September 14, 2021
5
 Min Read

Recent violence and hate toward US citizens of AAPI descent has been spurred by nationwide anti-Asian messaging associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent article published by the New York Times cited over 110 reported race-based attacks on Asian Americans since March 2020, though it’s realistic to assume the number is much higher (Cai et al, 2021). 

Xenophobic propaganda has associated “guilt” of this virus to the AAPI community “condemn[ing] phenotypically Asian bodies as the spreaders of the virus” (Tessler et al, 2020). This unfounded ideology contributes to the concept, theorized by Claire Jean Kim, of racial triangulation and conceptualization of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners (Tessler et al, 2020). In reality, AAPI communities have faced discrimination and oppression long before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From “model minority” stereotypes to “yellow peril,” Japanese internment camps, and the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, xenophobic hate has been raging against AAPI communities throughout US history (de Leon, 2020). And, ironically, rendering an “invisible Americans” status to the communities at the same time. 

Beyond these particular anti-Asian policies, AAPI communities have faced extensive exclusion and discrimination in the US food system, which has been virtually unsung. This includes segregation from the realms of agriculture and food production, but also extended to xenophobic assumptions of culturally-relevant eating practices. And to go even further, Asian-American citizens have also been practically omitted from food system research, rendering data on AAP nutrition status and important issues like food access inequities near nonexistent. 

Despite extensive research on food insecurity in the US, no current research exists on the burden of food insecurity among Asian Americans (Becerra et al, 2018). This absence of data actually connects strongly to the “model minority” stereotype, which has long seeded assumptions of Asian Americans having unparalleled achievements in education and success (Becerra et al, 2018). And, has led to the belief that the population suffers little health disparities and difficulties accessing nutritious foods. 


Xenophobia related to cultural-relevant cuisine from distinct AAPI communities by the health and nutrition professions and US public was the focus of a recent study. The report addressed the unsupported, race-based classification of MSG as a “dangerous” food additive that lead to a horde of health issues (Wahlstedt et al, 2021). It also tackled the xenophobic history of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” (CRS), which is also an assumption unbacked by science and has driven bias and prejudice against AAPI culturally-appropriate foods amongst professionals in health and nutrition (Wahlstedt et al, 2021). This may not be the foundation of anti-Asian food culture, but it had a profound effect on the beliefs and messaging related equating culturally-relevant Asian foods as “unhealthy.”


Finally, AAPI Americans were also subject to the country’s only law in history directly barring a group of people from land ownership based solely on ethnicity. In 1913, California enacted the Alien Land Laws, which barred undocumented citizens awaiting US citizenship from owning and leasing agricultural land for longer than 3 years (Lyon, 2020). This law is recognized as an anti-Japanese legislation in response to Japanese Americans pursuing careers in agriculture and building AAPI community-based networks that supported agriculture-infrastructure transactions, including supply and equipment purchasing, transportation, and marketing (Lyon, 2020). This racially discriminatory law was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1920 and was sustained for over 30 years (Lyon, 2020). During this time, Asian land ownership in the US dropped by over 40% (Park, 2019). Now, over 100 years later, the AAPI community owns less than 1% of farmland in the US while whites owned over 95% of productive land (Park, 2019).


As anti-Asian hate surges in the US, it is essential that we recognize the long, continued history of discrimination AAPI communities face in America. Including recognition of xenophobic and race-based oppression in the US food system, including prejudice in the health and nutrition professions. To amplify anti-xenophobic messages across in the field, white professionals must take responsibility for their own biases toward AAPI Americans. It is vital that we call for corrections to race-based recommendations, required continued education on culturally-appropriate care, and amplification culturally-responsiveness in practice to make the US food system an equitably inclusive space for AAPI Americans thrive without invisibility or constant threat to their livelihoods. 


Resources

Becerra et al. The Overlooked Burden of Food Insecurity among Asian Americans: Results from the California Health Interview Survey. August 15, 2018. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6121379/ 

Cai, et al. Swelling Anti-Asian Violence: Who Is Being Attacked Where. April 3, 2021. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/04/03/us/anti-asian-attacks.html 

de Leon. The long history of racism against Asian Americans in the U.S. April 9, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/the-long-history-of-racism-against-asian-americans-in-the-u-s 

Lyon. Alien Land Laws. October 8, 2020. Accessed April 8, 2021.  https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Alien%20land%20laws

Park. Young Asian Americans turn to farming as a means of cultural reclamation. October 28, 2019. Accessed April 6, 2021.  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/young-asian-americans-turn-farming-means-cultural-reclamation-n1072036 

Tessler et al. The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic. June 10, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7286555/ 

Wahlstedt et al. MSG Is A-OK: Exploring the Xenophobic History of and Best Practices for Consuming Monosodium Glutamate. March 5, 2021. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221226722100068X?dgcid=author