Accent Penney arrived in the United States from the Marshall Islands in 1996 with the hopes of starting a new life for his family —a life free from the lasting effects of food contamination and radioactive fallout caused by the U.S. military’s nuclear testing in his homeland from 1946 to 1958.
Like many immigrants working to adjust to life in the United States, Penney depends on food stamps to maintain a basic, nutritious diet. Last year, Penney’s food benefits were halved. As Washington lawmakers struggle to pass a state budget this year, they may not restore the deep cut to the State Food Assistance program for immigrants in their first five years of residency.
“Food stamps are really important for us because we cannot really go back to our home to get food because it’s still contaminated,” Penney explained. “The poison in the ground is going down into the soil. The poison is not good for eating. We need to come to America to get something to eat.”
Growing up on the Marshallese island of Bikini Atoll, Penney experienced firsthand the destruction from the U.S. military. He described seeing as a young boy “powder” fall from the sky onto his home. The powder was a mix of ash and radioactive by-products blown over from nuclear testing sites in the northern Marshall Islands.
Burns, hair loss and vomiting were some of the more immediate effects caused by the fallout. Long-term effects that still persist today include radiation sickness, leukemia and other forms of cancer, birth defects, mental retardation and thyroid disorders, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The future of Marshallese residing in their homeland has also been threatened by the loss of their ability to grow food that is safe to eat. Much of the exposure to the fallout comes through eating locally grown food such as coconuts, Pandanus and breadfruit contaminated with cesium-137, according to the Marshall Island Dose Assessment and Radioecology Program.
Penney, who currently lives in Kirkland, traveled with other Marshallese Washingtonians to Olympia in April to ask state legislators to restore funding to State Food Assistance, which last year’s final budget halved.
The program was created in 1997 by the State Legislature after Congress voted to deny federally funded food stamps to most lawfully-residing immigrants. U.S. immigrants from countries with Compacts of Free Association with the United States (Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands) that live in Washington are only able to obtain food stamps through the state program.
As of April 2009, a total of 5,479 people in King County received State Food Assistance — 37 percent (2,047) of those recipients were Asian and Pacific Islander (API), according to Linda Stone, food policy director at the Children’s Alliance, a statewide child advocacy group. Marshallese and Vietnamese make up the largest groups of API recipients. And about 1,000 Marshallese Washingtonians rely on State Food Assistance, according to recent research by Holly Barker, advisor to the Marshallese government.
State Food Assistance recipients get only about half the amount of benefits as those receiving federal food stamps. And since July 1, 2012, families who had received an average of $114 per month saw their benefits drop further to $56 per month, according to the Children’s Alliance.
As the Washington State Legislature works toward passing a budget, benefits have a chance to be restored to higher levels. The Senate’s version of the budget restores State Food Assistance to about 75 percent of its former level. The House version of the budget, however, keeps the program at 50 percent. Governor Jay Inslee is called legislators back to Olympia for a special session to finalize the budget in mid-May.
“Immigrant families and their allies are working hard to convince legislators to restore State Food Assistance,” said Jon Gould, Children’s Alliance’s deputy director. “In the last month alone, we’ve helped several families who have never been to the State Capitol tell their stories to their state legislators. Their passionate advocacy is making a difference. Legislators seem to understand that hungry kids can’t learn.”
Catmina Devara testified before the House in April. She is a mother of five children who works 63 hours a month, earning $10 an hour. Devara said she struggles to support her family on monthly paychecks of about $500.
“We are currently struggling with the 50 percent cuts [to the State Food Assistance Program],” Devara said in testimony. “I can’t provide the needs for my children. I don’t want to see my current children go hungry or go to school without a meal. I understand that many of you have children, and I think you don’t want to see them go hungry.”
Marshallese community leader Jiji Jally has also been advocating to restore cuts to State Food Assistance.
In a family where often only one parent is working, while the other is caring full-time for their children, food stamps are essential, Jally explained. When families don’t have sufficient food stamps, they just get the necessities like meat and rice. Other dietary essentials like fruits and vegetables are left off the table.
Jally said it’s been an uphill battle in getting lawmakers to understand the struggles of Marshallese who come to the United States for medical, educational and nutritional reasons.
“We’ve been advocating to politicians, and some of them are not even aware of who the Marshallese people are,” Jally said. “Food there [in the Marshall Islands] is still contaminated. We’re lost. Some are not adapting so well.”
Jally said she wants people to realize that the Marshallese just want an equal shot at making it in the United States. Food stamps help families who struggle to afford nutritious meals on minimum-wage salaries, Jally explained.
“We’re just like everyone else,” she said. “We start out with assistance and then we want to go on our own. We just want to work and be treated like anyone else.”
To send a message to lawmakers to restore State Food Assistance, visit www.childrensalliance.org , click “Act,” then click “Restore State Food Assistance.”