When eating organic was totally uncool
Before hipsters got rooftop gardens, my poor, refugee family ate that way because we had to. And we were ashamed.
By Pha Lo
Jan 6, 2011
To me, the organic food movement has become dizzyingly, surreally chic. Farmers have become rock stars; the most exclusive restaurants name-check them so much you can almost see dirt on the menu. But before organic produce exploded into a $25 billion industry, before city gardening became cool, I grew up in a Hmong refugee community, living the urban organic lifestyle not because it was fashionable, but because we were poor. I couldn’t wait to leave it behind.
I grew up in Del Paso Heights, a mixed-race inner city of Sacramento, Calif. — the kind of neighborhood that had just two grocery stores between endless fast-food and liquor shops, and where we all paid for our groceries with food stamps. It was where we grew organic food and raised chickens in our backyards to survive. And where we did it in secrecy.
Like most Hmong in the United States, our community was from Laos, transplanted here after an alliance with the CIA turned our isolated tribe of farmers into mercenaries — a failed secret war against the Communist Vietnamese that left Hmong as the targets of ethnic cleansing. Lifelong farmers-turned-international refugees, the older generation was ill-prepared to thrive in modern America. They settled into inner cities where many turned to social services as safety nets.