Food access and culture: What it means for immigrant and refugee populations

As the immigrant and refugee liaison for Greater Lansing Food Bank’s garden project, Dilli Chapagai helps gardeners overcome potential barriers such as language, growing techniques and education.

Dilli Chapagai

Our Table is a series of community roundtable discussions on various food topics ranging from health to sustainability. In November 2017, Our Table kicked off with a conversation on food access held at Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing. This article is the third in a three-part Q&A series further exploring the views and work of the community leaders on the panel.

Read part one (Allen Neighborhood Center’s Joan Nelson) and part two (Cristo Rey Community Center’s Joe Garcia).

Dilli Chapagai is the immigrant and refugee liaison for the Greater Lansing Food Bank Garden Project. The Garden Project provides access to land, education, free seeds and plants, tool lending and a networking hub so that all community members can have access to fresh, healthy food through gardening opportunities. The Garden Project's staff support a network of nearly 125 community gardens and 400 home gardens, helping to feed over 7,000 people in the greater Lansing area.

Abby Harper is an educator in community food systems with Michigan State University Extension.

Harper: How do you define food access? What does it mean for you and the work that you do at the Greater Lansing Food Bank?

Chapagai: To me, food access means being able to grow and eat culturally appropriate, fresh and nutritious food all the time. Food access is an environment where all people, at all times, have access to sufficient resources so that they can obtain safe, culturally acceptable and healthy food through a sustainable food system.

Some of our community gardens serve large refugee populations. As an immigrant and refugee liaison, I work closely with our gardeners to aid them in overcoming some of their barriers to gardening, such as language, different growing techniques and how-to education. Many of our immigrants and refugee gardeners came with agrarian backgrounds but the soil, weather, growing techniques and crops are a little different here than in their home countries. Many have limited or no English proficiency. I bridge the gap between the Garden Project, gardeners born in the United States, and diverse immigrants and refugee gardeners by sharing different growing techniques and best practices, gardening cultures, and different foods that they grow so that they can adapt the best practices they need to grow their own food and be self-reliant to some extent.

Speaking from the perspective of the immigrant and refugee populations with agrarian backgrounds, food access to them is being able to grow, harvest, eat and preserve an endless supply of food so that they don’t have to worry about food at any time, because that is what they are used-to in their home countries.

Harper: What makes working with refugees and immigrants unique when addressing challenges around food access?

Chapagai: The unique part of working with immigrant and refugee populations is the diversity in everything — cultures, growing techniques, food, ideas, views, opinions, languages and perspectives. That being said, it is not that easy to address food access challenges in these populations because there are many more hidden factors contributing to food access problems in immigrant and refugee populations. In U.S.-born populations, the most recognized factors contributing to food access are employment and economic barriers. However, in immigrant and refugee populations, family status, structure, cultures, food cultures, access to assistance, length of their residency, opportunities and languages all can present barriers to food access. So, problems in diverse cultures must be viewed through different lenses, which does not happen easily.

Harper: What are the greatest barriers for the immigrant and refugee populations you work with in accessing food?


  • Availability and affordability of culturally appropriate, fresh and healthy food.
  • Little or no time to grow their own food for yearlong consumption.
  • Lack of enough resources to do their own farming and difficulty making a living through farming.
  • Food culture and traditions (Many of the immigrant and refugee populations come from traditions where cooking their own food every morning and evening is an essential part of their culture and life, so they don’t adapt easily to the U.S. fast-food culture).
  • Employment and economic status.

Harper: Are there any promising strategies you are using or have seen elsewhere that are particularly effective in addressing food access challenges for immigrant and refugee populations?

Chapagai: We do try a little bit to help diverse gardeners by providing seeds and plant starts of their culturally appropriate foods, in addition to other resources, so that they can grow food that they love and that is culturally acceptable to them. They want to grow more and yearlong, but could not do so because of the short season. These are some of the strategies that could help address this issue:

Creating or finding jobs in agriculture for those who have agrarian backgrounds where they get rewards to grow their own culturally appropriate food. I have found that many immigrants and refugee gardeners prefer to work in agricultural jobs rather than company jobs, but there are no suitable jobs available to them in the agricultural field. They want to make a living out of farming but there are lots of barriers to doing so.

Different models of incubator farms or other programs, where programs provide land in addition to classes or financially supporting immigrants and refugees to farm. Most of immigrant and refugee populations want to make a living out of farming, but it is impossible given the high start-up costs. It would be great if there was an organization or business that could subsidize some of the expenses, such as rent or utilities, so these folks can choose to be full-time farmers. I’ve seen programs in other states where refugees are enrolled as students in an incubator farm for two years – they get paid for learning and growing and have ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, equipment operational classes, educational workshops and marketing classes to support these growers, with paths to employment in the agricultural industry after they graduate.

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