Food: A Basic Human Need

By: MaiBao

Imagine walking into a strange place full of people you’ve never met. You are put into a room, probably with another family or other individuals who have left similar abusive situations. Imagine walking into the kitchen to not find any food items that you’re familiar with. Where is the jasmine rice, the fish or oyster sauce, the curry, or the Indian tea? You’ve left abuse, yet the comfort of home--which to many people is food--is nowhere in sight.

S was a fairly new bride from India. When she was at the shelter a few years ago, she rarely ate food in the shelter because her diet was vegetarian. She would walk to Subway over half a mile away to get food. J was an elderly Filipino woman who asked if we could provide jasmine rice because her stomach couldn’t handle bread. C was disappointed when she found out the shelter didn’t have a rice cooker, an important cooking equipment in many Asian homes. Haven’s emergency shelter provides basic Western grocery needs to our clients. Our previous API clients managed with what Haven had, but we did not do enough to provide a basic human need to make them feel comfortable. One can argue that a person should be grateful with what we can do for them, but how responsive are we if we can’t even provide comfort to API families in the shelter?

Haven has always struggled with providing culturally-specific food to our API clients. How do we go grocery shopping for food items we’re not familiar with? What is fish sauce? What is basmati rice? Where do we get garam masala? What about rice powder for laab or padek for papaya salad? And what kind of vegetables are lemon grass, bitter melon, long beans, daikon, sinqua, and yu choy?

K has been staying at the shelter since December. We have a traditional bamboo sticky rice steamer, a clay mortar and a wood pestle in our shelter kitchen. There is fish, oyster, and soy sauce in the cupboards among other Asian condiments and ingredients. A container of pre-made papaya salad sauce lies in the dark corner of the fridge. Our API shelter staff goes out weekly to buy groceries for K. We celebrate this small success because we have never been able to make this happen before.

Now the question is: How do we make this sustainable? Haven was able to provide culturally-specific food for K because our API staff is familiar with Thai and Laotian cooking. What is going to happen when someone comes into the shelter and asks for food Haven staff and volunteers are not familiar with? What ideas or plans can we put into place to make sure an API survivor receives the same kind of comfort that our non-API clients are getting?