Got green? Lack of fresh produce damages immigrant communities

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Violet Lavatai and her son Russell (Photo by Inye Wokoma/Ijo Arts Media Group)

As a young girl growing up in San Francisco, Violet Lavatai gathered the boxes that came in the mail, boxes of taro and other vegetables still fresh with the dirt of her native land clinging to its roots.

“My mom said that the [prices of] vegetables at the store were outrageous. She would pay an arm and a leg to get what she really liked,” said Lavatai.

“What my mom would do is have my grandmother send her fresh produce [from Samoa]. … I remember those packages. When my grandmother passed away, there was no more of that.”

Women in the green economy

Now a single mother and resident of the Skyway community in Southeast Seattle, Lavatai struggles to afford fresh organic produce from the grocery stores. She lost her job as a computer technician when the recession hit and moved with her two kids into her sister’s place.

“In Skyway, there’s nothing around there. No grocery stores, no actual stores. Many in our communities know that we’ve got to eat better to change our diets, but it’s not that easy,” said Lavatai.

Most of Lavatai’s Skyway community is considered  a “healthy food desert,” according to a 2008 report by King County’s Food Access Policy Council, where residents must travel more than 30 minutes on public transit to reach a grocery store. This year, Lavatai was one of 212 women to participate in a survey conducted by Got Green, a grassroots organization aimed at amplifying the voice of low-income women of color in the green movement.

Most of the women surveyed were from the Rainier Valley, where 50 percent more families live below the poverty line than in Seattle as a whole, and where single-parent families are more prevalent. Got Green made a concerted effort to interview women of color, and 15 percent of those surveyed were Asian Pacific Islanders, and more than half of the participants said they speak a language other than, or in addition to, English in their homes.

Participants were handed fliers defining access to healthy foods, green jobs, green homes, and public transportation issues. They were asked to rank these four issues based on the importance of the issues to their families. The results of the survey led to a published report, “Women in the Green Economy: Voices from Southeast Seattle.”

“For me, as a single mom with two kids and a low income, I’m always scrambling. I wake up, get the kids ready and out the door, and go to work. I think that’s the majority of us where, if we don’t have knowledge of it, then we won’t pay attention to it,” said Tammy Nguyen, founder and project organizer for Women in the Green Economy Project.

“Most of my family members are immigrants here. Due to the language barrier and lack of knowledge, we don’t pay attention to it. It’s not that we don’t want to be green or that we don’t care. It’s the lack of knowledge or the power of wanting to.”

According to the report, 40 percent of survey takers ranked access to healthy foods as most important to their families, followed by 23 percent in favor of green homes. Based on overall results, green jobs came in at 20 percent and public transportation at 17 percent. However, Asian Pacific Islander survey takers differed from the majority and prioritized public transportation ahead of green jobs.

Not the same as home

Yaofou Chao arrived in the United States in 1979, part of a wave of Mien and Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War and Secret War.

“I was a countryside boy. I knew everything that had to do with farming or gardening in my country. [After I arrived here], I looked for a factory job. That was very difficult for me because I had not lived in a big city or town before,” said Chao.

In the highlands of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, the Mien people live highly agrarian lifestyles, but upon arrival in the United States, their access to organic produce was limited.

“My vision of organic growing was just going to the backyard and picking your food for the night. Coming here, it was a little bit different. It’s not the same as home,” said Lavatai.

Lavatai’s mother and aunts suffered from diabetes, which only intensified after living in the United States and eating processed foods. Lavatai hasn’t been diagnosed with diabetes, but she has to constantly check. She is concerned about the food that her family eats, and when asked to rank the four green economy issues for Got Green’s survey, she chose access to healthy foods as her top priority.

Speaking their language

In developing the survey, Got Green volunteers knew they had to present the green movement in ways that are relevant to the lives of low-income women of color. Beyond solar power, a ‘green’ job is also one that is self-sustaining and sustains the community, which could include many service-based and local jobs.

Green Homes also includes proper weatherization and a safe indoor environment, protecting families from airborne toxins and saving them money on utility bills. More than two-thirds of the women ranked food as first or second priority. More than half of the women who ranked green homes among the top two stated that they made these choices out of a desire to improve their family’s health.

“To reach low-income women and women of color, the environmental movement needs to stop talking exclusively about the health of our planet, and instead, start talking about — and promoting policies that improve — all families’ health,” says the Women in the Green Economy report.

Factory work was tough on Chao until he started a job in 1982, working for the Indo-Chinese farm project in Woodinville and Bothell, organized by Washington State University (WSU). Chao took to the task immediately, working the 18 acres in Woodinville with his own hands.

After five years, Chao was let go due to lack of funding, and he began to work as a translator in courtrooms and doctor’s offices. Two years later, Chao was called back to serve as the Urban Horticulture Educator for WSU, and he was given the opportunity to fulfill a personal goal.

“I wanted to teach organic to my people. Repeatedly, they hear it clearly from me because we’re speaking the same language,” said Chao.

He currently tends the Mien Community Garden and works with local gardeners from the Mien, Hmong, Laotian, and Korean communities teaching organic farming and traditional farming techniques in five different languages: Thai, Chinese, English, Mien, and Lao. Chao has helped to develop 70 to 80 plots in Seattle.

According to the Women in the Green Economy report, 67 percent of those who ranked food as the most important to their family said that cost was the major impediment to accessing fresh produce and healthy foods. The women reported being unable to access healthy foods due to location, lack of access to organics, not having a place to garden, and not having enough time.

“Skyway needs a produce stand. The people that would buy this stuff are people from our community, and it would stimulate our neighborhood and generate money,” said Lavatai.

“A lot of people living in the big city like Seattle go to the P-Patch to gardens for therapy. They go there to meet friends or to watch what they’re growing as an experiment, but for my low-income families, they have to watch the garden very closely and grow what they really want to eat in their family. I teach them to grow for purpose, not for fun,” said Chao.

Voices lifted up

The Mien Community Garden grows produce widely used in traditional cuisines — specific types of gourds, cucumbers, watermelon, beans, and greens. Most of the food generated from the garden goes to feed the families of the gardeners and Mien elders. When possible, Chao delivers any surplus to the food banks in Beacon Hill and the International District. The garden has given some low-income farmers the opportunity to sell their produce at small stands and farmers’ markets.

Following the survey collection period, Got Green held roundtables for volunteers and community members to discuss the four key issues. The discussions laid the groundwork for organizing efforts and led to recommendations for each issue.

“This project represents a voice that doesn’t get lifted up. It represents a perspective that needs to get heard,” said Theresa Fujiwara, a Southeast Seattle resident and Got Green Board member.

Got Green recruited survey takers and women in the community to serve on a Food Access Organizing Committee, which aims to recover EBT card fees that Chase Bank charges the state of Washington to expand the Farmers Market Nutrition Program to include families with children over age five, and to increase opportunities for Southeast Seattle urban farmers to sell locally grown produce at a neighborhood-based produce stand. With report in hand, the Food Access Committee and Got Green is now working to achieve the goals recommended in the report. (end)

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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