Hmong Institute tackles hunger with ‘culturally relevant foods’

Food important to a culture is also important to end hunger. It’s what a Madison nonprofit believes as it serves hundreds of families a month.
Published: May. 16, 2022 at 7:26 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Food important to a culture is also important to end hunger. It’s what a Madison nonprofit believes as it serves hundreds of families a month.

The Hmong Institute’s Food Care Box Program packs boxes with ingredients like pork jerky, noodles and Hmong sausage. They’re examples of culturally relevant foods, according to the nonprofit’s board president Mai Zong Vue.

Not only do clients enjoy eating them, she said, the foods also fill a need in the Asian American community.

“They don’t know where to go get food,” Vue said. “For those who know where to go, they go and get products that are not to their liking and don’t go anymore. Or they go there and there’s a language barrier, so they don’t know how to communicate.”

The foods also have a practical benefit. They prevent some guests from tossing out foods from pantries, which would otherwise be useful to other people.

The nonprofit received $75,000 from Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin last month for the program. Three other groups got grants as well, for a total of $200,000 to increase food equity in the community.

Kaying Xiong came to the Hmong Institute on Madison’s east side to receive her food care box.

She does not speak English, so she said through an interpreter that she relies on government assistance and pantries for food.

But the problem is most of those donations give her stomachaches. Potatoes, for example, remind Xiong of the time she hid in the jungles. Her family members were killed, and she fled for persecution.

Even after reaching the U.S. in 2005, she said she stopped eating potatoes because she ate so many of them in Laos. Every time she tastes them, she said, her stomach hurts.

Vue said this is another example of culturally relevant foods playing an important role. In Xiong’s case they help overcome trauma.

The program now has a waiting list. Vue said this points to many more members of the Asian American community who are struggling with food insecurity.

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