Benyamin Chao: Food brings people together

Published on Jul 15, 2021 in CalFresh, Immigrants, State Legislation

As a formerly undocumented person, I understand the impact of food inequities in the lives of immigrants. When I was undocumented, my sibling was arrested and detained by ICE. I would visit him every weekend with my mom to see how he was doing and I noticed firsthand the insufficient nutrition he was provided during this time. He rapidly lost weight due to calorically deficient meals and his skin and fingernails started to turn orange because the most nutritious food he was provided were individually wrapped carrots. 

The quality of food provided to my brother opened my eyes to the fundamental systemic inequities that immigrants like my family faced. Regardless of our immigration status, we have a basic right to healthy and nutritious meals. After his release, my sibling has developed into a successful chef. As an owner of three fast-casual restaurants, he provides a pivotal role as a provider of nutritious meals to his community. When I think of my brother’s story, I am reminded that if we invested in nutritious food for all immigrants, we would all thrive as a community. 


“If we invest in nutritious food for all immigrants, we would all thrive as a community.”— Benyamin Chao

I used to be excluded from CalFresh myself even though my spouse (a citizen) received CalFresh. At the time, I was struggling to make ends meet after graduating from college because I lacked employment authorization. It was one thing to graduate and struggle to find a job, but not having DACA in order to qualify for a job made it even more difficult. 

I was trying to be an adult, earn an income and settle in with my new partner. When I tried to access public benefits to support my basic needs, I was unable to sign up for MediCal and CalFresh due to my immigration status. Instead, only my partner -- a US Citizen -- qualified, and we had to split an individual CalFresh allowance of $180. While it wasn't enough for two, this made all the difference. I didn't have to worry as much about where my next meal was coming from. Having access to fresh food made all the difference -- I was more confident, I could contribute more to my community and my job and focus on investing in myself.

Food brings people together

We all believe people deserve access to food. People should not go hungry for any reason.  It’s fundamental to the dignity of human beings. Our goal is to ensure that everyone, no matter their income or status, has access to food.

Many Californians are unable to receive nutrition and food safety net benefits because they do not qualify due to their immigration status. From agricultural workers to grocery store workers to restaurant workers, the state’s food system is held up by the contributions of immigrants. Despite this fact, low-income immigrants face disparate rates of hunger or have little access to nutritious foods. Especially at this time, there is an extreme demand for food banks and food distribution due to widespread food insecurity. But this is not enough to meet the need.

We must call on our elected officials and our governor to remove the immigration status requirements from our state’s nutrition safety net program, CFAP. As a state, we are big on investing in education and children, and food is an essential part of children's outcomes. If you want people to feel like they belong, you have to consider their basic needs and their health. 

Benyamin Chao is the Health & Public Benefits Policy Coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC). Born in Brunei and raised in Long Beach, California, Benyamin is rooted in his mission to build political consciousness, power, and systems change with diverse, immigrant communities.


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