By Ashley Chong, Chin Tung Tan, Kellyn Jewett
Sunday Farmers’ Market at College View
When Shahab Bashar resettled from Iraq to Lincoln with his wife and daughter in February 2017, food was one of his biggest concerns.
“The thing I was most worried about was food. I went to Walmart and Hy-Vee, but I didn’t buy any food because they were really expensive and I had very little income,” Bashar said, adding that he had trouble finding food he used to eat back in Iraq.
The U.S Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake due to limited social and economic conditions. Approximately 225,580 people were food insecure in Nebraska in 2019, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that operates a network of more than 200 food banks nationwide.
The number could be greater than that since Lincoln is home to more than 30,000 refugees.
Bashar fled Iraq with his family when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, carried out a genocide against the Yazidi community, a religious minority residing in northern Iraq, in the mid-2010s.
Things took a turn for the better when he became the Yazidi cultural liaison at Community Crops, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide education and resources for growing local food.
The former program manager of Community Crops, Matt Pirog, told him about the nonprofit being a vendor at the Sunday Farmers’ Market at College View. Bashar went and bought fresh tomatoes and parsley, produce he never thought he would find in Lincoln.
“I brought them home,” Bashar said. “I told my wife, ‘I have a surprise for you.’”
When his wife saw those vegetables, she said, “Oh my god. Where did you get those?” Bashar replied, “It’s local food! Grew by the local farmers!”
Bashar became a farmer for Community Crops through the Yazidi Farmer Outreach and Education Project, and he had been selling vegetables he grew at the Sunday Farmers’ Market since 2019.
Eventually, he realized he rarely saw refugees visiting the market even though most of them participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Sunday Farmers’ Market at College View is a SNAP verified vendor.
SNAP is a federal government program that helps low-income households and individuals with buying groceries. Each client receives an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, similar to a debit card, with a certain amount of benefits stored, depending on the size of their household.
“I couldn’t find anyone in the market, so I told my manager that I should tell people to come and show them the market,” Bashar said.
Bashar’s informal tours around the farmers’ market with his Yazidi family and friends were later formalized by Community Crops into a series of SNAP tours when the nonprofit received a grant to do outreach work in July 2021.
Shoppers have to exchange their SNAP funds for wooden tokens at the manager’s booth before being able to buy food at the market. All 67 participating vendors at the farmers’ market accept SNAP tokens.
The market also participates in Nebraska Extension’s Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows SNAP customers to earn up to an additional $20 when they use their wooden tokens to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
“At the Sunday Farmers’ Market tours, we give a brief walking tour of the market, discuss how to use the token system, SNAP and Double up Food Bucks at the market, and can connect individual tour participants with vendors who are selling products they want or need,” said Amy Gerdes, director of operations at Community Crops.
As a single mom who used to rely on SNAP, Lindsey Weber, the market manager of Sunday Farmers’ Market at College View, knew how confusing the process could be. That led her to set up a manager booth where SNAP customers can go to exchange tokens and ask questions.
“I fully acknowledge that using your benefits can feel like a labyrinthine challenge, one which is made more burdensome if you do not speak English as your first language, you are new to Lincoln or you work and don’t have time to research where and how to use your benefits,” Weber said.
The market’s partnerships with the Yazidi Cultural Center and the Asian Community and Cultural Center made it possible to attract refugee populations, according to Weber. Community Crops offered SNAP tours focused primarily on Kurdish and Arabic speakers last summer. On the last day of the market, Nov. 14, the SNAP tour was conducted in French, aiming to attract the Cameroonian community.
The tours currently do not happen monthly, but Gerdes said she hopes to “make these events more regular and frequent in the 2022 season.”
“We have a broad target audience and the tours are open to the Lincoln community as a whole. However, the tours we have offered thus far have been for non-English speaking communities,” Gerdes said.
The goal of these tours, Gerdes said, is not to push farmers’ market shopping to anyone but to create exposure and help provide an opportunity for individuals to access healthy local food.
Since Community Crops started doing the SNAP tours, Weber saw around two or three times an increase in the market’s SNAP distribution.
“Anecdotally, I would say a large portion of our SNAP beneficiaries is refugees,” Weber said.
Similarly, Gerdes said she saw repeating and regular customers from the Yazidi community visiting Community Crops’ booth.
“[They] were able to purchase culturally relevant items directly from farmers in their own community, such as green eggplant and pickling peppers,” Gerdes said.
For Bashar, he prefers growing his own food that is unique to the Yazidi diet over buying them from the supermarket. He said it was hard to know whether the fresh fruits and vegetables in big supermarket chains have pesticides in them.
“When I put a seed under the ground, I feel like I belong to this land. It ties me to Nebraska more,” Bashar said.
So far this year, 212,061 people received SNAP benefits in Nebraska, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Between August 2020 and 2021, the state saw a 2.8% increase in participation.
This year alone, Nebraska’s SNAP benefits have changed in multiple ways.
The passage of LB 108, spearheaded by Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, expanded the eligibility standards for those receiving food stamps. The bill increased the gross limit for SNAP households from 130% of the federal poverty level to 160%, enabling nearly 2,500 more families to receive benefits.
“It improves the standard of living for Nebraska citizens that live on the margins of society,” McCollister said.
Many refugees live on the margins of society, facing everything from language barriers to food insecurity.
On top of LB 108, SNAP recipients saw an increase in their benefits this October. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reevaluated the Thrifty Food Plan, which sets SNAP benefits for the country. Recipients can expect, in general, a $12-$16 increase per person, per month.
According to SNAP’s latest participation data from the USDA, 1 in 12 Nebraska residents received the benefits in 2019. Of these, 72% of participants are in families with children. Between 2013 and 2017, it’s estimated that SNAP kept 31,000 people out of poverty on average in the state.
“SNAP is the best poverty program in existence to give poor families a helping hand,” McCollister said.
Catholic Social Services
During the first 30 days of their arrival in the country, most refugees rely on resettlement agencies for food.
Catholic Social Services is one of three resettlement agencies in Nebraska that work under the Refugee Resettlement Program to help refugees settle down in their new life in Nebraska. The agency has been resettling refugees since the 1980s.
CSS has a food market that is open to individuals to shop once a month. Volunteers at CSS walk the family or individual through the food market, informing them of the quantity of each item they can take depending on their family size.
“We don’t ask questions about income. We’re just trusting and feeding the hungry,” said Desirae Hagenbucher, the volunteer and food market coordinator.
The food market has essential American food such as cereal, oatmeal, canned food and vegetables. However, Hagenbucher said most newcomers would pick rice, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables over the other options.
She noted that Muslim users have dietary restrictions and most communities have varying diets as well. For instance, Muslims can’t eat pork and their food has to be halal, which is food permitted under Islamic law; some people don’t eat beef because of their faith, while others prefer vegetarian food.
“We don’t have the food that they need,” Hagenbucher said. “How do we, as an American-based food market, promote that to other people? Because a lot of our food is donations from different parishes or churches in town.”
Although Hagenbucher said CSS’ system does not keep track of the people who visited the food market, she estimated that the market’s largest populations are White Americans, Middle Easterners and Hispanics.
“I think so many of our refugees come here so determined to have a better life,” Hagenbucher said. “Many of them are so dedicated to working. They are willing to work hard in order to not have to come here to receive our services.”
Through the help of CSS, Albert Maribaga and his family left Sudan and resettled in Lincoln in August 2000. CSS gave them a box of food upon arrival. However, Maribaga said they used only 30% of the box’s content because they weren’t familiar with American food, especially canned ones.
“Now I think things are getting better because they let you choose what you eat so that you don’t waste food,” Maribaga said.
Hagenbucher said she once took a new Congolese family grocery shopping, and they commented that American food is sugary. She asked them what they eat back at home out of curiosity, and they said they like meat, rice, fish, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit.
In the meantime, Hagenbucher said CSS is brainstorming how to get more culturally appropriate food for the diverse population in Lincoln.
Maribaga said food pantries like CSS Food Market help newcomers alleviate the stress of food insecurity, but it doesn’t mean that they are self-sufficient or do not have to worry about other living expenses. He gave this example: If he can get milk from the food market, the money that he originally needed to buy milk would now be used to pay his electric bill.
“After waiting so long to come here… you still feel like you’re struggling to get food,” Maribaga said. “Yeah, it’s actually really frustrating, and that’s what a lot of people will go through.”
Food wasn’t the only expense that Maribaga worried about. He was the sole breadwinner of the family for the first few years here. In his first year in Lincoln, CSS hired Maribaga as a case manager to resettle fellow Sudanese refugees. He worked with CSS for a year before getting laid off after the 9/11 tragedy because the organization fell short on funding.
Maribaga managed to secure a job afterward, but he was working a total of 77 hours per week at two jobs.
“You want to have a car, insurance, you want to pay your rent,” Maribaga said. “So it really affected the speed of becoming self-sufficient.”
Listen to Maribaga share his thoughts on building a life in America:
Maribaga is now working with CSS again as an employment specialist. He said he decided to come back because he knows exactly what other immigrants and refugees are going through.
He advised newcomers to be patient and determined. He said that the first job newcomers get here won’t be their ideal job, but it’s a step in the right direction to live a successful life in their new home.
“There are people who came here five years ago and are doing better than people who’ve been here 20 years because they are determined and they know exactly why they’re here,” Maribaga said.
Center for People in Need
Much like Community Crops, Lincoln’s Center for People in Need focuses on getting food to the city’s more vulnerable populations.
Steve Sheridan, deputy director of CFPIN, says they have a large population of refugees that come through their doors for food distribution.
For people wanting to get food from the center, they must sign up for a center card, ensuring that they are at or below 200% of the poverty level. However, no one needs to show proof of income or pay stubs.
“We take their word for that. They’re probably not coming here if they don’t need to be here,” Sheridan said.
The CFPIN currently sees around 1,000 families a week, the majority of them refugees, according to Sheridan. Last year when the COVID-19 pandemic started, the center was seeing over 2,000 families a week. In 2020, it didn’t require any income verification. Instead, anyone could drive through the outdoor tents and pick up food with no questions asked.
The Center gets all of its food from the Food Bank of Lincoln. Sheridan said that CFPIN is the largest food distributor for the food bank, giving out about 26% of the food they get.
“We need them, they need us,” Sheridan said.
People are given different types of food depending on what the Center receives from the food bank.
Sheridan said CFPIN tries to take its recipients’ varying cultural backgrounds into account when giving out food. A lot of the Center’s clients are from Muslim communities, according to Sheridan. The staff tries to ensure that these families get a choice in their protein as many of them do not eat pork.
“We put out a variety of things and let them choose what it is that fits their family,” Sheridan said. “We do what we do because people need to eat and they need to stay healthy. They need to continue to be able to care for their families.”
Asian Community & Cultural Center
Lwe Ku Say’s story is a hopeful one. Say and her family fled war-torn Myanmar and resettled in Connecticut in 2008. They moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was 12 years old.
The Karen people, the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar, have been subjected to persecution in Myanmar since 1949. The Burmese military burnt countless villages in the Karen State and committed acts of killing, rape and torture upon the villagers.
Many Karen people ended up in refugee camps in Thailand where many countries including the U.S. government, with the help of the UN Refugee Agency, had set up a resettlement program to evacuate them. There are more than 5,500 Karen living in Nebraska, according to the Karen Society of Nebraska.
“It was because of the war,” Say said. “The Burmese military and the government want to kill and steal the Karen land. We have to move here to America.”
Accessing food she was familiar with was an issue she realized upon her arrival in Connecticut.
“It was kind of hard because we didn’t really know anything,” Say said. “I had no choice but to try out American food. We did have a kind and understanding caseworker. He helped us through many months with food and clothing.”
After the caseworker left, it was challenging to keep the family afloat. Her father was earning minimum wage while having to pay rent as high as $800 per month. Her mother had to travel to Arizona to get her driver’s license because that was where Karen interpreters were hired.
“Living in a big city is pretty hard,” Say said. “We moved to Nebraska because we wanted a job that pays us better.”
Say’s father now works at a food packaging factory, and her mother stays at home to look after her siblings. As the family settled into their new environment, Say’s mother met other Karen people in the community and getting food became less and less of a problem for the family.
“She knew a lot of people from different [refugee] camps so they were able to relate with her,” Say said. “They went through the same experience, too. She made friends easily. Most of them know how to drive. We will go out and buy food all the time.”
Becoming eligible for SNAP eased the family’s worries about buying food.
“We used it ever since we were in America in 2008,” Say said. “Sometimes we’ll buy things in a big package and save it up for later. I don’t think we have a problem with eating.”
Say’s family stopped renewing their SNAP benefits in 2016. She said that the process of renewal is simply too time-consuming.
She added that the family would certainly appreciate additional SNAP credits to buy groceries, especially fruits and vegetables, but she felt they are in a good place where they can be food secure without having to depend on SNAP.
“We just don’t need it anymore,” she said.
Say, now a Karen advocate at the Asian Community and Cultural Center, held tremendous gratitude for how tight-knit the Karen communities in Connecticut and Nebraska are. They are one of the reasons her family always had enough to eat.
“They just wanted us to know that they have resources, and they are here to support us,” Say said. “I really like that the community will always spread out the word about anything that can help. They don’t keep it to themselves.”
Stand in for Nebraska
The cultural center is collaborating with Stand in for Nebraska, a grassroots organization doing direct advocacy work for marginalized communities, to deliver culturally appropriate food baskets to specific families and individuals on a monthly basis.
Under the Nourishing the Plains program at Stand in for Nebraska, Freedom Thompson, who is a board member and program coordinator, gathers grocery orders from underserved families through the cultural center every month and personally visits local ethnic stores to buy them.
“We have literally an ethnic hub of grocery stores where we can source these foods,” Thompson said. “And what is that doing? Not only are you creating and building with your community, but you are shopping with your community and creating an environment that is no longer separated and divided.”
At one point, Thompson’s car carried 744 lbs of orders. Every month since October 2020, she will drop the groceries she bought at the Asian Community and Cultural Center, and then it’s the center’s turn to put the food baskets together for the families.
For now, Thompson said the food basket initiative is benefitting 20 Karen families, 20 Vietnamese families, 10 Middle Eastern families and a few Sundanese families. She said she thought refugees and immigrants are likely not going to come right out and say they are food insecure because they “don’t want to seem like they are not thankful.”
Finding out that other nonprofits were not connecting with cultural centers and not being culturally responsive was a huge validation for her to bring change through the Nourishing the Plains program.
“When I think about food security and insecurity, that is to recognize all ethnicities, cultural and spiritual beliefs, and sourcing and securing their foods – the food that are so desired to them,” Thompson said. “It is to ask the communities what they need instead of ‘othering,’ in other words, telling them what we think they need.”
Partnering with the Asian Community and Cultural Center to bring together the food baskets initiative has always been an intentional move for Stand in for Nebraska.
“[We thought] about communities that literally are underserved… Who do we see going to food distribution hubs? Who do we see the most in that network or system? And what are the barriers?” Thompson said.
If food insecurity still exists among underserved communities even with food distribution sites running daily, Thompson said there must be some type of barriers.
“It could be transportation. It could be language. It could be numerous barriers. It could be literally that’s not the foods that are acceptable in their culture or religion,” Thompson said.
Some of the local grocery stores that Thompson frequented are Oriental Market, Little Saigon and Suji’s Indian Grocery.
“They provide an abundance of what the Westerners would call, ‘exotic food,’” Thompson said. “When we’re thinking about food security and marginalized groups, I would want to spend some actual dollars in those markets because that’s helping them to provide in another type of way.”