By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Special to The Rafu
This article has been funded by a grant from the Asian American Journalists Association-Los Angeles.
For the purpose of this article, the terms “food stamps” and “EBT” and will be used interchangeably. “AA&NH/PI” is short for “Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.”
Why do many Japanese supermarkets not accept food stamps?
Food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or CalFresh in California, assist people with lower monthly incomes in purchasing food using government funds.
“The Japanese and Japanese American people who have EBT want to buy Japanese products,” said Setsuko Nakama, executive director of Little Tokyo Nutrition Services. EBT, short for Electronic Benefits Transfer, is the system that processes food stamps. A stipend based on income, household size, and expenses loads monthly onto an EBT card, which functions like a debit card and can be swiped when checking out at a supermarket.
Half of Nakama’s clients are low-income Japanese seniors already on Medicaid and eligible to receive food stamps. “But they cannot go to the Japanese store because the Japanese stores don’t accept EBT.”
More than half of Little Tokyo residents live below the Federal Poverty Line. The average household income is around $15,000, which is much lower than the surrounding areas except Skid Row, a report by Little Tokyo Service Center found. At Little Tokyo Towers, a low-income housing apartment for seniors over 62, most residents qualify for food stamps.
While the majority of supermarkets nationwide accept food stamps, none of the large Japanese supermarkets, including those in Little Tokyo and the Greater L.A. area, accept the payment. Asian markets of similar size — such as H Mart, Seafood City, and 99 Ranch — all accept the payment. Smaller Asian markets, such as the produce and dry goods shops in Chinatown, Thai Town, and Little Bangaldesh also commonly accept EBT.
Tozai, a small Japanese supermarket in Rosemead, was the only market this reporter could find that accepts the payment.
When asked why Nijiya Market in Little Tokyo does not accept food stamps, a customer service representative replied that the store has not checked if it qualifies as an EBT provider. “Our core product of Japanese groceries and organic foods are priced higher than in major U.S. markets,” the representative wrote in an email. “We may try to make it available in the future.”
The price of products is not a determining factor in a store’s eligibility to accept EBT. Higher-priced supermarkets — from Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, and Gelsons’s to the more upscale Erewhon — all accept the payment. It is also common for smaller health food stores and farmer’s markets to accept food stamps.
Like Nijiya, Tokyo Central (formerly known as Marukai) is a Japanese supermarket conveniently located in the heart of Little Tokyo. In response to a request for interview, a customer service representative replied via email: “We don’t accept EBT and no thank you. Please do not interview the staff during store hours.” Tokyo Central is owned by the Marukai Corporation, which also operates stores in Gardena, Torrance, San Gabriel, and throughout the Greater L.A. area — as well as in the Bay Area and San Diego. Mitsuwa and Seiwa, both Japanese chain supermarkets with locations throughout Greater L.A., also do not accept EBT.
Despite most Japanese markets not accepting the payment, the desire is there. Masayoshi Sasaki is a senior resident at Little Tokyo Towers. He has used an EBT card for over six years, and finds that the montly allotment is very helpful to cover his grocery shopping. He lives within walking distance to Nijiya and Tokyo Central. But the fact that these stores do not accept EBT deters him from shopping there.
Sasaki smiled. “I like Japanese food,” he said. He hopes Nijiya and Tokyo Central will accept EBT in the future.
Instead, he shops at Little Tokyo Marketplace, a Korean-owned supermarket in the Galleria a few blocks from home. Formerly Woori Market, this store stocks some of the Japanese foods Sasaki wants to buy, though not all.
Kentatsu Nakayama also uses EBT to purchase groceries. He got the card two years ago, after receiving notice that because he qualified for Medicaid he could also sign up for EBT. Originally from Okinawa, Nakayama now resides in Boyle Heights.
Like Sasaki, Nakayama shops at the Korean-owned Little Tokyo Marketplace. “It has almost everything I want,” he said. He too wishes Nijiya and Tokyo Central accepted EBT, and sometimes shops at these stores regardless. “But they are expensive,” he said.
“We want them to have access to Japanese food,” said Yasue Katsuragi, a community organizer at the Little Tokyo Service Center who works mostly with low-income seniors living in Little Tokyo Towers. Katsuragi said many seniors are used to walking from the Towers toward Japanese Village Plaza, where Nijiya and Tokyo Central are located — but cannot use EBT at these stores.
Other Japanese seniors at the Towers expressed a desire for Japanese markets to accept the payment. One resident, who is 92, uses EBT to purchase ingredients for cooking — one of her favorite activities. She too frequents the Korean-owned Little Tokyo Marketplace to shop.
“Because many Japanese customers now receive EBT, accepting the payment would improve business for the Japanese markets,” Nakayama said. “The Korean and Chinese markets are growing their business — they are glad to accept EBT and they welcome EBT recipients.”
Over 27,000 stores are authorized to accept EBT in California. Some larger supermarkets accept EBT for online shopping. Drugstores and gas stations also commonly accept EBT for food purchases.
A person is eligible to receive food stamps if making under $2,266 per month — and can receive up to $281 per month on their EBT card. If not used up, funds roll over into future months. EBT cards can be used to purchase food, from produce to dry goods. EBT cannot be used to purchase alcohol, medicines, or hot prepared foods from a grocery store.
Despite myths that EBT users burden taxpayers, the program has been found to stimulate economies. The USDA estimates that every $5 in food stamps roughly translates to $9 of economic activity — and that every billion food stamp dollars spent supports the equivalent of 8,900 full-time jobs. Advocates project that if the gap were closed between Californians who qualify and those who already use EBT, the state would generate $4.5 billion in additional economic activity and $88 million in local and state taxes.
In order to be eligible to accept EBT, a store must meet one of two “staple food requirements.” For example, it must stock at least three varieties in each of the staple food categories: 1) vegetables or fruits; 2) dairy; meat, poultry, and fish; and 3) breads or cereals.
Alternatively, if a store makes more than half of total gross sales from selling staple foods, it will be eligible. This means that specialty stores — such as butcher shops, where only one food category is sold — are not often eligible. A store’s majority stock of foods coming from a certain ethnic group or region also has no effect on the store’s elibility, a representative from CalFresh said.
Both Sasaki and Nakayama feel that if Japanese markets began accepting EBT, the effect would support the markets financially and benefit the community: more people would patronize the stores, profit would increase, and yet more customers would stop by.
“I think the bottom line is that most of the Japanese markets don’t want to apply for EBT because they don’t want poor people to come,” said Katsuragi.
Nakama echoed this sentiment. She and Darlena Kuba, president of Little Tokyo Nutrition Service’s board of directors, are familiar with the fact that Japanese supermarkets do not accept EBT. Both spoke to the inaccurate stereotypes surrounding food stamps as used primarily by Black people and people of color.
“To me, it’s kind of discrimination,” Nakama said. Japanese supermarkets “think they are right to refuse the homeless and low-income. They don’t want to accept people who are Black. I am very concerned about racism.”
“It is racist, and affecting people that are poor,” said Kuba. “Until the Japanese markets decide to change their minds, it’s kind of hard to go shopping there because they don’t accept EBT.”
Little Tokyo Nutrition Services was born as a result of the Japanese community’s concern for the welfare of its older citizens, Nakama said. The program has operated since 1976, and primarily serves lunch to low-income Japanese seniors for $3 or for free. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the program has arranged meal deliveries for Little Tokyo seniors who need help accessing food. Nakama coordinates over 60 caregivers, who visit seniors in their homes to help cook and clean.
According to a 2020 study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health examining food insecurity during the pandemic, Asian households were more likely to face transportation issues when purchasing food. Nakama said some residents of Little Tokyo Towers travel to Food4Less in Boyle Heights to shop because it is a somewhat-nearby, affordable supermarket that does accept EBT — about a half-hour ride by bus.
Some residents of Little Tokyo Towers who use EBT cards are homebound, and can’t purchase food on their own — so Nakama (or volunteers) pick them up and take them shopping.
The desire for culturally relevant food is strong. A 2020 survey by the organization Koreisha looked at needs related to Japanese senior care services. A vast majority of people surveyed, ranging from Issei (first generation) to Gosei (fifth generation), expressed that having Japanese food available at senior residential facilities was most important, in addition to Japanese activities, entertainment, and Japanese-speaking doctors.
Access to culturally relevant produce is crucial, said Heng Lam Foong, co-director of Asian/Pacific Islander Forward Movement (APIFM). The organization connects local Asian and farmers of color to the communities who will eat their produce — delivering to schools, parks, churches, farmers markets and clinics. They source gai lan and bok choy from family farms and distribute it to seniors in Chinatown, and work with a supplier Downtown to bring taro and green banana to Pacific Islander communities in the South Bay. A person’s ability to access and cook the foods they want to eat is key for maintaining health, Foong said.
She added that immigrants come to the U.S. with family recipes that are traditionally healthy — and thus the right ingredients are needed so people can cook those recipes. APIFM works to make sure traditions can be kept. It’s “important to maintain that sense of health and cultural connectedness to keep people well — what you grew up with, what your family has always cooked,” Foong said.
During the pandemic, APIFM began active outreach and education about CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program. From 2020-21, the organization created an online database and map to track EBT acceptance accross Asian grocery stores. By clicking around on the map, users can find out which stores accept EBT and WIC (the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children). To visit the map, go to: www.apifm.org/calfresh
From 2021-2, a study by the national Census Pulse found Asian Americans were least impacted by food insecurity out of any ethnic group. The study was conducted only in English and Spanish.
But when the NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health conducted a similar survey in partnership with 27 community organizations in New York, they found accessing food was the biggest challenge for Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AA&NH/PI) communities. Over half of the NYU survey respondents took the survey in one of 11 Asian languages, said Stella Yi, who helped lead the NYU study.
“The unintended consequence of conducting surveys in only English and Spanish is overrepresentation of Asian Americans with higher education and income levels, who tend to have better social and health outcomes,” Yi said.
The issue of food security is a broad-reaching public health issue. As access to nutritious food influences rates of disease, it’s crucial that AA&NH/PI communities can afford foods that will help them feel well. For older adults (ages 65+) in L.A. County, the prevalence of diabetes is 33.2% among Asian Americans, compared to 16.9% among whites, according to the L.A. Department of Public Health. Japanese, Filipinx, and Korean folks reported higher rates of diabetes than white people and Asians overall, a 2020 study by researchers at Brown University and UCLA found.
While none of the local Japanese markets accept EBT, two Little Tokyo restaurants accept the payment. Thanks to the Restaurant Meals Program, which enables patrons to use EBT at participating restaurants, Sasaki enjoys dining at Suehiro and Oomasa in Little Tokyo — homestyle Japanese joints where he can order the lunch special. Eligibility for the program is limited to cardholders who are over 65, unhoused, or disabled. Participating restaurants range from independently owned joints to Pizza Hut and Subway (where Sasaki likes to get the meatball sandwich).
Additional barriers to signing up for food stamps include inadequate knowledge about program eligibility and misconceptions about the program, a 2020 study in the **American Journal of Health Promotion** found. The study looked at shame among AA&NH/PI EBT users, who spoke of the social stigma of poverty making them reluctant to sign up.
“Japanese people — and not only Issei, Nisei too — they carry unnecessary pride,” Nakama said. “I think many of them feel embarrassed to apply for Medicaid and food stamps.” Nakama has heard some residents of Little Tokyo Towers boast about not receiving help from the government.
Embarrassment and pride can prevent folks from sharing information with one another, Kuba added. After observing residents at Little Tokyo Towers, Nakama said: “Korean and Hispanic and Black and people from Eastern Europe — they exchange information about their EBT benefits. I don’t know why, the Japanese don’t exchange information.”
Efforts by the government and several organizations have been under way to reframe and rebrand the CalFresh program, to move away from images of shame toward a program for people in need of additional support.
Code for America is an organization working to destigmatize food stamps and bust myths. “People applying for food assistance feel the stigma that arises from deeply ingrained myths about poverty and welfare in American culture,” the organization’s website states. The site features anonymous stories from individuals who have applied for EBT in order to make ends meet.
A July 2020 report by the California Department of Social Services looked at EBT users by race and ethnicity in the state. Of the more than 2 million surveyed, around 8% identified as Asian/Pacific Islander. White users of EBT constituted the largest group, with over 1 million users, followed by Hispanic/Latinx (834,000), Black/African American (352,000), Vietnamese (47,000), Chinese (42,000), and Filipinx (37,000). Nearly 15,000 were Native Hawaiian or “Other,” and 3,000 were Samoan. Only 2,400 were Japanese. While some of these numbers are proportional to the total eligible populations, gaps persist between those who are eligible and those who sign up.
EBT is easy to apply for, Nakama said. And recently, more Japanese residents are applying for the benefits.
A few months ago, a representative from CalFresh visited Little Tokyo Towers to explain the program and help residents apply for an EBT card. Before the workshop, Katsuragi noticed many Korean residents at the Towers already used EBT. “And now it’s a lot of Japanese, too.” She said Korean seniors often ride the bus to Koreatown, where more supermarkets accept the payment.
On a recent visit to another Japanese senior’s apartment at the Towers, Nakama asked if the resident used EBT. The woman grew eager upon learning she is eligible, and began planning the ingredients she would buy. She often shops at the Korean market in Little Tokyo, and enjoys buying kimchi and clams from the seafood counter. Nakama informed her EBT can be used to buy a range of foods, including fresh tuna and filet mignon — much to the woman’s excitement.
The positive effects of food stamps have been widely studied, with several studies focused on older adults. In 2018, the U.S. Census found EBT usage lifted 3.2 million people — including 315,000 adults 65 and older — above the poverty line.
A study published by Population Health Management found food stamp usage by older adults was associated with reduced hospitalization and, among those who were hospitalized, less costly hospital stays. Food-insecure adults over age 54 using food stamps were also less likely to be depressed than non-participants, a study in the Journal of Nutrition found.
On average each month, food stamps serve about 5 million households with adults 60 years or older — about 24% of total households, a report by the Food Research & Action Center found. Even so, only an estimated 48% of eligible older adults participate in the program, compared to 86% of eligible non-elderly adults.
While an enrollment gap persists across racial and ethnic groups, the disparity is particularly prevalent among eligible AA&NH/PI households in California: of the total number of households using food stamps, only 5% are from AA&NH/PI backgrounds — even though these groups comprise around 16% of the state’s total population, the Population Reference Bureau found. “Eligible API families are missing out on key resources to supplement their nutrition and diet,” APIFM states on its website.
In addition to shame, language barriers can prevent people from signing up for EBT, said Foong. Culturally relevant EBT materials, printed in the appropriate language of a given community, are needed to break down barriers and increase participation among low-income AA&NH/PI groups, a study by APIFM determined in a study
The organization offers information sessions about enrollment, and helps folks sign up at libraries and farmer’s markets.
EBT enrollment in California’s AA&NH/PI households increased from 109,000 in 2018 to nearly 190,000 in 2020, a study from the Population Reference Bureau showed.
A move to simplify applications has created a pilot program called “Benefits Cal,” a website where users can apply for Medi-Cal, CalFresh, and CalWorks (a program providing cash aid to low-income families with children), all in the same place. In L.A. County, over 16,000 people per month apply for an EBT card. 63% have jobs, and 31% are families with children. But only 10% are seniors.
Because the government has been working to simplify the EBT application process for individuals, Foong is hopeful someone may also working to simplify the process for stores — which could lead to more stores signing up to accept the payment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a training website for stores applying to accept EBT, including videos explaining the application process, how the store will receive payments, and information for cashiers for how to carry out EBT transactions.
“If Japanese markets change their mind, that would be wonderful,” Katsuragi said.
To sign up for an EBT card, visit www.getcalfresh.org or www.benefitscal.com, or call (877) 847-3663.
Additional reporting by Elana Lee Rapp
Sadly there are some people in the Japanese American and Korean American community that are “ableist” and “classist”. That bigotry could play a rule in why most supermarkets in Little-Tokyo and many in Korea-Town do not allow EBT to purchase food. Most of those people negatively impacted by the no EBT rule are members of the Japanese American or Korean American community themselves.