Month: October 2017

Toni Okamoto Wants to Teach You How to Live a ‘Plant-Based’ Life

Monica Luhar for NBC News, August 14, 2017 

Toni Okamoto was trying to make her family healthier when she started the blog that would become Plant Based on a Budget, a website for meal planning, recipe sharing, and education about the affordability of a vegan diet.

By the time she first posted vegan recipes on her family blog in 2012, she had seen her grandfather pass away due to complications from heart surgery and an aunt amputate a toe and foot due to Type 2 diabetes.

“I had just started learning more about food issues, so in my early 20s, I thought, ‘OK, this is really frustrating and sad for me to sit here and do nothing while my family is suffering,” Okamoto told NBC News.

But over the past five years, Plant Based on a Budget has built a growing reader base, with more than 120,000 followers on Facebook.

The success has allowed, Okamoto, now 30, to author a cookbook, “The Super Easy Vegan Slow Cooker Cookbook,” which highlights 100 healthy, low-maintenance recipes, as well as co-author “The Friendly Vegan Cookbook.” She was also featured in “What the Health,” a documentary on plant-based diets released on Netflix in June.

“The feedback for my segment has been amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe how many people are inspired to eat plant-based after watching the film. I’m so grateful to have had a small part in it all.”

Growing up in a multi-ethnic household in Sacramento, California, Okamoto learned first hand the importance of maintaining a healthy diet.

Every day before high school track practice, she would eat lunch at a fast food chain located across the street. But within minutes, she’d immediately feel sick to her stomach.

“It was not healthy for me to eat that way,” Okamoto said. “My track coach said, ‘why don’t you stop eating fast food and try cutting back on red meat?’”

As Okamoto changed her diet, she saw herself “thrive” as a runner and — after participating in a two-week vegetarian diet challenge with a friend — eventually decided to transition into a full-vegetarian diet.

The four-year transition to a vegan diet for ethical reasons was more gradual, Okamoto said.

“I stopped eating beef, then getting broth beef and stopped drinking cow’s milk and butter,” she said.

In an effort to inspire healthier eating options for her family, Okamoto began compiling plant-based recipes. But when she put the recipes up, she was shocked when many of her family members expressed the concern that it was too expensive for them to eat the way she did.

“That’s when my family food blog turned into a blog that challenged the misconception that plant-based food is only for privileged people,” Okamoto said. “I wanted to provide everyone resources that gave them inspiration and drive to eat healthy.”

Okamoto stresses the importance of providing early nutrition education in schools and avoiding processed foods.

“Nutrition education is nonexistent in many low-income communities of color,” she said. “It’s important to feed children healthier food.”

Having grown up in a low-income family, Okamoto focuses particularly on budget-conscious recipes. Her meal plans can be as inexpensive as $25 per week per person and include a grocery list that shows how to use 100 percent of the ingredients while staying within budget.

There’s also a focus on ease — when she doesn’t have time to cook, Okamoto pre-plans her meals and uses her slow cooker, letting ingredients cook overnight.

“While I sleep, I cook beans overnight, and in the morning I’ll add chili and stuff, and when I’m at work, I’ll cook it,” she said. “When I come home, I have dinner, and the rest of the week I’ll have leftovers.”

Okamoto said that she wants people to know that Plant Based on a Budget is not an all-or-nothing decision and that every bit of progress toward a health goal is something to be proud of.

“It takes a lot of courage and effort to relearn all of the things you’ve been taught about food and that is difficult,” she said. “Pat yourself on the back for every healthy meal you eat and every day you choose plant based.”


Asian-American Groups Start Mental Health Program for DACA Recipients

Monica Luhar for NBC News, Oct. 10, 2017 

A group of Asian-American and Pacific Islander-serving organizations announced the creation of a mental health program for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and their families Thursday, a month after the White House announced that it was ending the program.

Ten mental health service providers from the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON) — a Los Angeles-based consortium of Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) groups — said they will provide free counseling, case management, and other mental health services through the DACA Mental Health Project.

Members of A3PCON discuss mental health needs in the AAPI community with LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn.Courtesy of A3PCON

The groups said they are providing the services in 12 languages: Bangla, Cantonese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Vietnamese, and English.

Connie Chung Joe, co-chair of A3PCON, said it was important for the groups to say they would continue to provide services during a time of uncertainty that has seen some clients shy away from seeking help.

RELATED: Asian-American Advocates Blast Trump Decision to End DACA Program

“We wanted to make it particularly clear that we would find a way to serve DACA recipients regardless of whatever Medi-Cal qualifications or status, without having to [worry] about getting the government involved,” she said.

She added that some clients might be hesitant about enrolling in government-funded programs because of the fear attached to sharing information.

RELATED: Analysis: DACA Boosts Young Immigrants’ Well-Being, Mental Health

Shikha Bhatnagar — executive director of the South Asian Network, one of the collaborating organizations — has also noticed clients dropping out of services, especially when it comes to the renewal of health insurance.

“They are too afraid to come in,” Bhatnagar said. “They feel their information might be in jeopardy, and they might be deported.”

South Asian Network clients speaking during a community town hall. Jamie Watson / Courtesy of South Asian Network

Manjusha Kulkarni, A3PCON’s executive director, said that DACA has enabled thousands of young people to “come out of the shadows” and be integrated into society since its creation in 2012, though there has been a stigma in the AAPI community regarding coming forward and applying for protections.

Asians made up 10 percent of the population potentially eligible for DACA, according to a September 2014 report from the nonprofit Migration Policy InstituteBut in a 2016 analysis, the institute found that application rates for youth born in Asia were “generally very low.”

According to 2016 federal immigration statistics, four of the 24 top countries of origin for DACA recipients are in Asia — South Korea, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan.

RELATED: What Is DACA? Here’s What You Need to Know About the Program Trump Is Ending

Kulkarni attributes the low application rates in part due to the model minority myth.

“I do think that this is one other place we see the model minority myth hurting the community because a lot of people unfortunately buy into it … and it makes it harder for people who don’t have status to come out of the shadows and to say, ‘hey, you know what, I had to come here [because] there was political strife in my homeland,” she said.

A counselor with APAIT, an organization that serves communities living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS. Courtesy of A3PCON

The deadline to apply for a two-year renewal of DACA was Oct. 5 for those with permits set to expire before March 5, 2018.

A United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services spokesperson told NBC News that as of Oct. 6, approximately 122,000 out of 154,000 DACA recipients who were eligible for renewals had applied.

Joe said A3PCON’s DACA Mental Health Project is also designed to provide more flexible services and help those who might not have a diagnosed medical health condition but want to speak to a professional due to stress and anxiety.

Kulkarni said that families are facing a lot of fear and uncertainty, noting that they can see that the Trump administration has been “hostile to immigrants.”

That hostility can increase levels of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, she added.

“They know they’re getting the message loud and clear that they are unwelcome here, so I think this is a very difficult time, and that’s why we launched our [mental health] project,” Kulkarni said.