Why Austin nonprofits may be overlooking Asian Americans

Meals on Wheels kitchen

Meals on Wheels Central Texas offers home delivery clients two meal choices a day for a total of about 60 different offerings a month, but of those 60 meals, only 1 or 2 are vegetarian. For years, Shubhada Saxena, a community advocate for seniors and Asian Americans in Austin, has been saying it’s not fulfilling the needs of Asian-American seniors in the area, who need vegetarian and other culturally appropriate meals.

“It’s not just about vegetarian choices,” said Saxena, “its about your personal choice. That’s important when you’re older. If you can’t eat the food you want, you don’t want to live.” Saxena founded the nonprofit South Asian’s International Volunteer Association, serves on the board of Family Eldercare, and has served on the Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission.

After Saxena took on care for her mother-in-law, she realized the challenges Asian American seniors face. She has advocated for more meal choices for Asian-American seniors, not just in the food Meals on Wheels delivers to homes but also the food it provides at eight city-run senior centers across Austin. To her, the availability of food from your culture determines how well you live. 

Demographic study

According to the city demographer, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in Austin, doubling in size about every 12 years, twice the rate of Austin’s population overall. They currently account for seven percent of the population and will outnumber Black people within the next few years.

And yet social service agencies may be overlooking this growing population. The 2016 survey on Austin Asian Americans, commissioned by the Asian American Quality of Life Commission found, for example, that….

  • 12 percent have unmet health care needs, four times the rate found for Asian Americans in a national survey
  • 44 percent are mentally distressed, three times the rate for the general U.S. population
  • 11 percent rate their health as “fair” or “poor”
  • 37 percent of Austin Asian Americans think depression is a sign of personal weakness.

Besides the startling data that survey revealed, it also revealed this Austin does not always include report data on Asian Americans. For example, the 2017 Critical Health Indicators Report by Austin Public Health does not include data on Asian Americans in many categories, even though the population of Asian Americans in Austin is about the same as Black people.

Certainly data on Asian American seniors in Austin was hard to find. But thanks to expert digging by the Capital Area Council of Governments, Census data revealed that the rate of poverty among Asian-American seniors 65 and older is 9.5 percent compared to the rate of poverty among the all seniors of 7.9 percent. Considering the Austin area has the second fastest-growing senior population in the country, according to the U.S. Census, the need for culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Asian American seniors is growing.

Part of the reason Asian Americans are overlooked may be attributed to the “model minority” myth, which is the assumption that all Asians are wealthy and highly educated and therefore not needing social services. But income and education within the Asian community varies;  immigrants coming for professional opportunities and refugees starting from scratch are often lumped together. Also, language can be a barrier for people participating in the U.S. Census and accessing social services. A 2015, multi-language survey of Asian Americans in Austin found that 62 percent of Asian American in Austin can’t speak or understand English very well.

Why not Asian-friendly meals?

For its part, Meals on Wheels says the data and demand for vegetarian meals among its clients is just not there. Clients don’t choose vegetarian meals and, on annual surveys, prefer vegetarian meals less. In it 2018 survey of home-delivery meal clients, the most requested meal types were “southern comfort”, breakfast, and Tex-Mex, and the least requested meal types were Asian, vegetarian, and vegan. Currently, 53 percent of its clients are white and only 1 percent are Asian.

Aside from offering two meat choices a day, what further complicates the meal program are the diverse nutritional needs and dietary restrictions of Meals on Wheels clients. Right now, it accommodates nine different types of medically appropriate diets in order to serve almost 3,000 meals a day.

“When you have restrictions on your diet, it can feel like there’s nothing you can eat,” says Seanna Marceaux, director of nutrition services for Meals on Wheels. “The fact that we can show up with a medically tailored diet that’s ready to eat is huge.”

Marceaux says those client surveys determine what’s on the menu. On October 1, Meals on Wheels will begin delivering meals from its regular menu to a Vietnamese seniors center in North Austin, which serves primarily low-income, Vietnamese-speaking clients. “We survey clients at our congregate centers, too,” says Marceaux, “and that will continue to drive our menu choices.”


PHOTO: Ruben Burnett, Head Chef at Meals on Wheels Central Texas, preparing thousands of meals to be delivered that day.  Photo credit: MOWCTX

NOTE: This story was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on Sept 16, 2018.

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