Refugee families encounter food struggles

Seh Reh, a Burmese refugee, packs a traditional Kerenni lunch prepared by his wife before heading to work at the Perdue Farms processing plant. Seh Reh is the sole provider for his wife and four children, Kerenni refugees who were resettled in Bowling Green in 2009. The family relies on food subsidies from SNAP to make ends meet. Photo by Leanora Benkato/HERALD

Katherine Sproles

Beside the door is a 4-foot-tall pile of dead tomato plants, the remnants of a once prosperous summer garden. Inside, Per Meh is the only one up. It’s before 6 a.m., and her family of five are all asleep in the living room. 

This is one of three home-cooked meals she will prepare today. As rice cookers hiss and heavy spices fill the kitchen, she yells at her family to wake, and everyone eagerly comes to breakfast.

Per Meh is just one of the many Burmese refugees living in Kentucky. While the Burmese people have been the highest refugee group to enter Kentucky for the past two years, arrivals have seen overall growth in the U.S. with nearly 70,000 refugees entering the country in 2014 compared to almost 60,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

At the same time, nearly 19,000 of Warren County’s 115,000 residents are affected by food insecurity, according to a 2013 Feeding America study, but refugees face extra obstacles when it comes to securing food. 

In a 2013 case study “Overcoming Barriers to Local Food Access,” Brittany Ryan, a WKU graduate student, cited communication and transportation as major problems for refugee families.

While working at the Community Farmers Market, Ryan and her colleagues started delivering boxes of fresh produce to four refugee families, two from Africa and two from Asia. 

“There was definitely an issue with fresh local food,” Ryan said. “They were being taken to Walmart or Kroger and given processed foods.”

Ryan said refugees often use government assistance called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to feed their families. 

SNAP provides an information packet called “Guidance for Non-Citizen Eligibility” but states that its own policy for refugees is “complicated.” It urges participants to understand all the possible issues that affect their likelihood to be awarded and their award amount. 

While SNAP is accepted at chain stores such as Walmart, Ryan said language barriers and unfamiliar items prevent families from knowing what certain American products are or which foods they should buy with their benefits. 

“Money is tight when you are a refugee,” Ryan said. “Refugees have very large families, and food stamps [through SNAP] don’t go as far as they hope.” 

Heath Ray, program coordinator for refugee services at Community Action, said SNAP is meant for refugee families to use until they start working, which should then make them ineligible for benefits due to their income being higher than SNAP qualifications. Benefits, then, are meant to be temporary. 

Unfortunately, the stipulations and rules that come with the assistance are often difficult for non-English speakers to follow. Ray said he had difficulty helping one mother try to sign up for and use WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for Woman, Infants and Children. With WIC, mothers are allotted very specific amounts of certain foods for them and their children.

“Items have to be approved down to the size and brands,” he said. “These may or may not be foods they are familiar with.”

Through trial and e’‘’rror, Ray and the mother figured out how to shop under the requirements, but not without difficulty. Ray said he could not imagine the difficulty refugee mothers experience without help.

“I even speak English, and it was incredibly hard,” he said. 

Ray said in the past five years, Burmese individuals have comprised the largest refugee group in Bowling Green. Working closely with the families, Ray said another common challenge for them is “identifying what food they want and where they can get it.” Community Action provides information pamphlets of all the international grocery stories in Bowling Green translated in many different languages. 

Ray said struggle also arises because many refugee families come from rural backgrounds when they grew their own food, but when they come to the U.S., they are placed in more urban apartment settings where it isn’t easy to have a garden. 

While some see SNAP as temporary assistance, families like Per Meh see it as permanent help for their struggling food security.

The family came to America in 2009 from a refugee camp in Thailand and at first received little assistance. 

Nga Meh, Per Meh’s 11-year-old daughter, said it was difficult during this time, and her family would eat less or not eat at all. 

For Per Meh, SNAP has proved necessary but difficult. When her now 11-month-old son Micheal was born, it seemed that everything changed, she said through Nga Meh. Per Meh said the SNAP her family was receiving and the Medicaid her husband was receiving all stopped when her youngest son was born.

It took months of friends and volunteers calling for the assistance to be restored. The family is still unsure of why exactly their assistance stopped. Per Meh said she would call the SNAP office several times for help, and no one would answer. 

The family has lived in America for six years, but Per Meh still cooks traditional Kerenni food for every meal. Nga Meh said her mother shops at local Asian markets to find food, but it is difficult to get there sometimes since the entire family shares one car. 

Since then, the family has supplemented its diet with help from local church food banks and their own garden. Nga Meh said in the warmer months, the family grows lots of vegetables, including peppers and tomatoes, on the small plot behind its townhouse. 

Per Meh said the family is always worried that SNAP will abruptly stop again. 

Jen Kash met Per Meh’s family while volunteering at Briarwood Elementary’s English as a second language program. Kash said the family connected since her son was the same age as Soh Reh and started playing on the same soccer team with him. Kash regularly visits the family and helps family members by taking them to appointments or filling out paperwork. 

Kash once drove Per Meh and other refugee mothers in the neighborhood to a farm to pick up what Kash thought would be meat and produce. As one of the women directed her down winding country roads, Kash wondered how the family who usually needed directions to navigate around the city knew the farm so well. When they arrived, she realized the families wanted to pick out live chickens to take home and slaughter for dinner.

“I said, ‘Are those chickens getting in my mini-van?’ So they put them in two boxes and put them in my car,” Kash said.

Per Meh and her family go to Holy Spirit Catholic Church with Kash. One day Kash asked a friend who ran the food bank at Holy Spirit to open on a special day so Per Meh’s family could pick out food. Because it shared one car, the family was not able to visit the bank during its normal hours.

“Per Meh just loaded up,” she said. Kash said Per Meh was resourceful with some unusual ingredients.

“There were these big ham bones,” Kash said. “I think she’s a good cook because she knew what to do with them. But she took all that and I’m sure made really good food out of it.”

Kash said she enjoys helping the family because she feels for other families that don’t have people to help with small everyday tasks.

“I think of all the other refugee families that don’t have someone looking out for them,” she said.