Minnesota Groan

Cory Rasmussen

THE GREEN VOUCHERS arrived in Leng Lap's mailbox just in the nick of time. In September, food-stamp benefits for Lap and other legal immigrants suddenly ceased, the program's fate sealed last year by federal welfare reforms. The vouchers, issued by the state, were redeemable for poultry, vegetables, and a variety of other items produced or processed within the state. Lap was grateful, but as the 71-year-old Cambodian checked the list of "Minnesota grown" products, she grew concerned. Gedney Pickles? Captain Ken's Baked Beans? Jennie-O Turkey?

She'd never purchased--let alone eaten--any of these items. Lap isn't the only person perplexed by the state's newly launched Minnesota Grown Supplemental Food Program. When legislators appropriated $1 million for MGSFP last spring, it seemed like an ideal (and politically palatable) solution: a program that helps feed elderly and disabled immigrants while simultaneously promoting local agriculture. "We thought it would be a win-win," says Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick), who helped solicit support for the plan. "It was a big stretch to get $1 million."

But this fall, as administrators labor to turn a legislative vision into a viable program, criticism is rising. It's underfunded and understaffed, immigrant advocates say, and perhaps worst of all, it's culturally ill-suited to meet the needs of the very individuals it was meant to serve.

Each month, a handful of vouchers are sent to approximately 3,000 legal immigrants who currently qualify for Social Security Income or Medical Assistance and who no longer get food stamps. The coupons are redeemable at participating stores across the state, including several farmers markets, a handful of ethnic grocers, a number of independents, and even a St. Paul meat processor. Under a Department of Agriculture program begun a decade ago, more than 400 farmers, producers, and processors are authorized to label products as "Minnesota Grown." The coupons are good only for those products.

But in just two months, the amount allotted to each immigrant has dropped from $40 to $25. The number of qualifying recipients has exceeded legislators' estimates by nearly 50 percent, and as the participant rolls have swelled, wedges of the financial pie have shrunk. "This is not an entitlement program," says the Agriculture Department's Carol Milligan, who coordinates the program. "There's a set budget, and it has to last through June."

Additionally, $150,000 and $200,000 of the total appropriation will be used to cover administrative costs, including training, salaries, and printing, Milligan says. But immigrant advocates charge that with just two full-time staffers and a budget that's already too small, such bureaucratic expenditures are excessive. Lourey, however, disagrees: "I think [program administrators] are keeping the costs as tight as they possibly can."

Budgets aside, a clash of cultures seems to account for the program's biggest hurdles. A newsletter sent with the vouchers to immigrants includes a couple of sentences in languages other than English, Milligan says, and other pieces of MGSFP literature are being translated into Russian, Spanish, and Southeast Asian languages. "But there are some people who don't read the language that they speak," she notes.

Chia Vang, coordinator of food issues for the Urban Coalition, contends that the real cultural gap lies closer to the heart of the program: The "Minnesota Grown" list lacks basic staples essential to the diets of many immigrants. Bread, for example, isn't among the eligible products. Rice, a mainstay among the Southeast Asians who account for the majority of recipients, isn't either. Locally produced cheese and milk are plentiful, Vang says, but few elderly Asians cook with dairy products, and many are lactose intolerant.

Minnesota-grown vegetables have vanished as winter approaches, leaving immigrants few options when it comes to using the vouchers for produce. Plus, locally grown items are hard to differentiate from their out-of-state counterparts--causing trouble for both grocers and immigrants. Says Cub Foods spokesperson Diane Alberg, "We don't want to have to be the one to tell a participant that they can't buy an apple because it isn't grown in Minnesota."

Despite the bumps, Lourey still views the program as a success. "Over 47 percent of the coupons were redeemed in the first month," the legislator says. "Even if you look at all the complaints about the program, it's this or nothing."

But Peter Trieu, an immigrant advocate with the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations, disagrees. "The idea that this is better than nothing is disrespectful," he says. "It's like throwing $10 at a beggar and expecting that to solve the problem. This is not solving the problem."

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