The Absence of Atta and the Dearth of Dal
How the scarcity of these staples gave rise to a food pantry offering culturally appropriate South Asian food in NYC
In 2015, Kavitaa came to the South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) on 45th Ave in Flushing, Queens, to seek help.
An elderly South Asian woman, she was unable to speak English and fluent only in Telugu, a language primarily spoken in the southeastern parts of India. Kavitaa, who requested anonymity, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and radiation therapy made her too weak to take public transportation. She faced severe hunger.
Usually SACSS, a non-profit organization set up in 2000 to help New York’s underserved South Asian community, assisted people like Kavitaa by referring their clients to temples, mosques or community centers a fair distance away.
But seeing her condition, Sudha Acharya, the executive director and founder of SACSS, decided to drive her to a food pantry.
To their dismay, Kavitaa was discouraged by the food offerings there.
“There was not a single thing [Kavitaa] could eat,” Acharya said.
“She said to me, ‘If I can just get some rice and dal, I’ll cook for myself.’ We felt so bad because she was alone.”
SACSS gave Kavitaa some money to buy food items and some blankets, but her situation made Acharya think about people with similar needs.
“It showed us the importance of providing culturally appropriate food,” she said.
As a result, SACSS opened one of two food pantries in New York that distributes South Asian food items to address hunger in the South Asian community.
When the pantry first opened in 2016, it distributed just rice, atta (flour), dal (lentils) and masala (spices).
“Just the basics,” said Acharya of SACSS.
“We put them out on a table here and about 50 people lined up right away.”
But now, on Fridays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., SACSS’s doorstep — sandwiched between grocery stores, laundromats and delis — are teeming with people queueing for South Asian staples. Many came through Food Bank, New York City’s major hunger-relief organization that provides food stamps; others found out about SACSS from friends, family or neighbors.
In a long, compact basement downstairs, the stands are stacked with lentils, rice and flour. Bread rolls are wrapped in plastic bags, while milk and fresh vegetables are stocked in the refrigerator. Jars of peanut butter, cans of soup and other dietary staples rest against the wall. Spices and oil are hot commodities; distributed on the first Friday and in the middle of the month. On those days, the aromas of haldi (turmeric), jeera (fennel seeds), dhaniya (dry coriander), chili powder, and sarson (mustard seeds) fill the air, despite being tightly packed in zip-lock bags.
On a single Friday, the pantry will serve around 290 people. Last year, SACSS served 631 individuals, including 115 children and 129 seniors, of whom 40 to 50 percent came from the Indian community. Often, these individuals are housewives, elders or caregivers.
Dressed in a yellow silk Indian salwaar-kameez and holding a large canvas bag, 26-year-old Manpreet Kaur began coming to SACSS’ food pantry four months ago. She recently arrived in New York from a village in Punjab, India, with her two boys, aged 8 and 9.
She was reuniting with her husband after he fled from India, seeking political asylum after receiving death threats for supporting a minority party. The family is still waiting for their immigration papers, and living in a small apartment in Flushing.
To support the family, Kaur’s husband works in a laundry 12 hours a day, six days a week.
“My husband’s salary isn’t very high, so the pantry gives us food. It’s very helpful,” Kaur said in Hindi.
Now that her children have started going to school, Kaur hopes to enroll in English lessons at SACSS and learn how to use a computer.
“You wouldn’t find something like this in India,” she said, referring to SACSS. “If there were more services like these, it would help more people.”
Acharya of SACSS describes a typical customer: “The husband works two jobs, not even minimum wage, and the wife goes to houses to clean. Their parents have ill health and they have three children. They can’t make ends meet here.”
Additionally, the pantry has also begun distributing food to the East Asian community on a biweekly basis.
“There’s hidden poverty across the spectrum,” said Acharya. “It’s not like everybody who comes here for food is unemployed, they can also have very low-paid jobs.”
In 2016, two million Asian Americans were living in poverty in New York, 24 percent of which are Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian communities. While the lack of disaggregated data contributes to these communities being underserved, many nonprofits have begun publishing their own research.
Anecdotally, the ‘model minority’ myth – the idea that Asians have unparalleled achievements in education and success – is also isolating the Asian population, because of the stigma attached to the idea of seeking welfare.
“When the first group [of Asians] came in the late 60s and early 70s, they were engineers, doctors, lawyers and professors,” Acharya explained. “However, those opportunities aren’t there anymore and the people who come here now are also not that educated.”
As a result, it has kept funding at bay for those in need.
“They’re ashamed to come,” said Acharya. “In our culture, food is the last thing to go and put your hand out for.”
To help put customers at ease, the social workers and volunteers who make up the SACSS’ staff are fluent in 14 different languages, trained in cultural competency, and sensitive to the needs of those who may be undocumented.
Hasuben Patel, who has been working at SACSS for the past 14 years, first came to the U.S. in 1991 with her family. She then enrolled to volunteer at the center for 20 hours a week with the hope of connecting with others from her community, and share similar experiences with one another.
Now in her late 60s, she says she learned many administrative skills like filing, ordering supplies, and handling petty cash only because of her time there.
“We have so many programs for seniors especially,” she said in Hindi.
These programs include computer literacy classes, an annual Seniors Day, once-a-month movie screenings, and summer excursions to sights in New York.
“Before, [SACSS] wasn’t so developed with so many projects, but with every passing year it has expanded,” Patel said.
Moreover, the food pantry can help make seniors feel less helpless.
“Many seniors came with their kids – they don’t know how to speak English, and they don’t know where to go,” said Patel. “Because they don’t earn, they feel as though they should contribute in some way or have their own food.”
Similarly, 27-year-old Pallavi Jaiswal said that for people like herself, the food pantry distributes food items she can’t afford to buy elsewhere.
“It’s not often that we can get atta and dal, except from the Patel Brothers grocery store, and they are expensive,” said Jaiswal.
Jaiswal, who was born in Bihar, India but now lives in Flushing, Queens, said she was told about the food pantry by her neighbor. She stressed the importance of providing culturally diverse food items in other pantries, too.
“This is for Asians, but we should have places that serve food from other countries, too,” she said. “Not everyone has the money to buy rice every month.”
But serving such a large community where food security is rendered invisible comes with other challenges, too. For example, the dietary preferences of different religious groups can differ. Besides Masbia of Flatbush, located on Coney Island Ave, SACSS is the only other ethnically diverse food pantry in New York. Acharya notes that for this reason, SACSS distributes only vegetarian ingredients which suit Hindus and meet the halal standard for Muslims.
Initially, some assistance came from the New York City Food Assistance Collaborative, a coalition of five major organizations working to alleviate hunger in New York City. They gave SACSS $25,000 to “renovate the basement and buy stands, the refrigerator, the freezer, the ramp where the food comes down from, and twenty chairs,” Acharya said.
City Harvest and Food Bank donated fresh produce. “We are very particular about fresh vegetables and fruit,” she continued. “If we don’t get enough, we order the supply, so we need money for that.”
While the number of people accessing the food pantry has risen almost every week, Acharya says the serving size of the food packets hasn’t changed because the size of the families is known for everyone registered with SACSS.
“Rather than giving small amounts to each person every week, we now serve enough food to last them every two weeks,” she explained.
“So far, we’ve been lucky and able to manage,” said Acharya.
But with clients now coming to SACSS from all over Queens, and sometimes, even Brooklyn – money and resources can fall scarce. In a city where hunger affects thousands of people, donations can only assist to a certain degree.
Food Bank, the primary agent in providing nutrition education programs and services, including resources to SACCS, released a report in 2019 which said that federal government policies have fast become the greatest threat to food pantries and soup kitches of New York City.
For example, when the government shutdown occurred at the beginning of the year, 18,000 federal workers required to work could not access pantries to provide services during working hours. Instead, they turned to charities. Moreover, the government released Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for early February in mid-January, known as a ‘SNAP Gap,’ which increased demand for food. In Brooklyn, this impacted one in four people who relied on free meals; in Queens it was 1 in 7.
According to the report, emergency food programs are “not only operating with shoestring budgets, but are getting by with little to no operational cash beyond the current month.”
But beyond investing more food and funds into these services, solving the problem of food insecurity in the Asian American community will require looking at food needs in a holistic fashion. The Food Group, a non-profit based out of Minnesota, writes on its website: “If we are to commit to equity, we must recognize that different communities have different needs, whether they are seniors, a racial or ethnic group, children, or community members who use public transportation.”
Gathering more data to understand the disparity between different Asian American communities is one way to be more equitable with the distribution of food stamps and social services, but the non-profit also stresses the importance of community building.
Ultimately, listening to the stories of the people being served by food pantries is key to shaping how to serve them best.
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