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When eating organic was totally uncool

Hmong Farmer. Photo by Victor Bareng. Minority Farmers in America.

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.

Read the complete article here.

1 comment

1 harriet fasenfest { 01.29.11 at 7:12 am }

Thank you, as always, for posting just meaningful articles. I have often thought about the way we newbies glamorize what is, and was, necessity and/or common sense. I imagine it has to do with modernities distance from the natural world and the way industry had nearly convinced us they could do for us what we might better do for ourselves. Of course, we like to turn everything into a designer moment so gardening will suffer its far share of the silliness. My sense is that those who mean to continues this way of life will while those who see it as a photo op or a sign of hipster cred, won’t. Still, it is great to see a returning to the gardening fold and that those who lived in the essence of its logic have turned a shame into pride.