As rates of food insecurity continue to skyrocket in the United States, many households facing this issue are not accessing the resources already available to them. This is in stark contrast to the fact that there are more food pantries in the US than there are McDonald’s restaurants. A lack of easy-to-find, accurate information about these resources and the stigma associated with assistance contribute to the gap between a hungry person and the food they need. When this person happens to be an immigrant, the gap widens significantly due to prevalent barriers and additional obstacles specific to non-citizen populations. 

Non-citizens face higher rates of food insecurity, with anywhere between 20-65% of that population experiencing this difficulty. While immigrants experience the same challenges as US-born citizens when it comes to finding reliable food access, these challenges are compounded by the inherent time-consuming and costly obstacles an immigrant in the United States has to face. US-born citizens facing food insecurity are often forced to make difficult decisions about which budget line items to prioritize and which can be put off until another day. Food access is usually the first expense to be cut – a person can’t skip a rent payment, but they can skip a meal. However, for a non-citizen, the added expense of the immigration process pushes food access even further down the list of necessary priorities to cover. When I spoke to Wayne Snyder, founder of Carolina Immigration Law, he echoed this reality, “Struggling families can lack access to food, healthcare, and financial opportunities. Immigrants carry the extra burden of having to navigate a complicated and costly immigration system, only exacerbating their situation.” 

In addition to the time and money needed to move through an antiquated immigration process, many non-citizens are not eligible for some of the most effective programs against food insecurity. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides “nutrition benefits” to those who qualify and can use these benefits at various stores to purchase food. This program has proven beneficial in alleviating food insecurity. When eligible people participated, the disparity in rates of food insecurity between immigrants and US-born citizens was extinguished. Despite the program’s track record in combating hunger, many non-citizens cannot access this incredibly helpful assistance. 

The non-citizens eligible for these “safety net” type programs experience additional stigmas and obstacles deterring them from accessing this crucial resource. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that non-citizens eligible for SNAP often do not seek enrollment. The studies’ authors attribute this to a variety of factors, including “fear of deportation, lack of awareness about eligibility, and language barriers.” A similar study by the Food Research & Action Center and the National Immigration Law Center found that over a quarter of the immigrant parents they spoke with had ceased participating in SNAP or other food assistance programs due to immigration concerns. 

Increasing eligibility for federal safety net programs such as SNAP would undoubtedly decrease rates of food insecurity in non-citizens. However, with over one million already eligible immigrants not participating in SNAP, we cannot overlook the role anti-immigrant stigma plays in this disparity or the lack of information available to spread awareness. 

Services like Lemontree stand in that gap and help bridge the divide between a hungry household and free food, regardless of immigration status. Lemontree combats food insecurity in the US by providing users with comprehensive, reliable information on food pantries in a way that prioritizes empathy. In addition, users can indicate if they do not receive SNAP benefits and connect to resources that check eligibility and help with the application process. With over 45 million immigrants living in the US, we must address the additional barriers this population experiences in order to address food insecurity as a whole. 

Donors can pursue the following strategies to ensure those being disproportionately affected by hunger are included in the solutions: 

  • Promote policies and elected officials that will widen eligibility for federal food assistance programs such as SNAP instead of limiting nutrition benefits by immigration status; 
  • Spread awareness of available food resources such as food pantries and soup kitchens, especially in communities with high immigrant populations; and 
  • Invest in organizations directly helping immigrants navigate the complex food resource systems in the United States.