NYC researcher weighs in on COVID, race, food justice & health in the Asian American community

By Common Threads | Oct 8, 2020

By Shana Alford

A day in the life of Stella Yi Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, ranges from engaging New York City community residents in research to advocating for them at city hall.

For example, when New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed the closure of Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest correctional institutions and mental institutions, close colleagues of Yi at the Center for the Study of Asian American Health, Simona Kwon DrPH and Yi-Ling Tan, weren’t just thinking about criminal justice systems, they were also thinking about the health and diets of Chinese senior citizens.

When the team learned that a satellite detention center could share a wall with a senior center located in Chinatown, they immediately got to work with the community, including Neighbors United Below Canal. Yi helped to estimate the potential impact of a proposed detention center on fresh fruit and vegetable consumption- tied to a reduction in vendor space. (She will be sharing later this fall at the Gerontological Society of America Conference.) Based on these collective efforts and informed by data, on Sept. 22, a judge struck down the proposal of this construction agreeing with the health impact research.

Since COVID-19, Yi has not only been reflective about her own experiences as Korean American living in New York City but also about the importance of addressing racial and ethnic health disparities.

“COVID-19 has only magnified existing health disparities largely influenced by structural racism,” Yi said.

She highlighted the fact that due to a lack of data representing the diverse range of Asian ethnic communities in New York City, COVID-19 contraction and death rates were underreported in Asian communities.

A lack of public health data and underreporting in immigrant communities can have ripple effects, like limited or no translation services for health services or other social programs for the Asian American community. Yi believes it is very important to collect and use data from diverse communities to design and promote health policies addressing disparities. She is currently leading a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention-funded project to address these data gaps in understanding COVID-19 both through new data collection and analysis of existing data like electronic health records.

Another important project that Yi and her team are completing is the COVID-19 closure project, “CoClo.” Yi and her team are studying the effects of COVID-19 on Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in six New York City neighborhoods with large ethnic Chinese enclaves: Chinatown, Sunset Park, Upper East Side, East Harlem, Park Slope and Brownsville. Through her research, she and her team demonstrated that food businesses located in the Chinese ethnic neighborhoods were more likely to close in the wake of COVID-19 in New York City.

Sometimes acknowledging racism, bias or discrimination isn’t enough; for a researcher, discovering ways to measure the impact of discrimination is a key means to achieving social justice. Yi and her team seek to investigate whether there will be more closures of businesses in these neighborhoods due to post COVID-19 anti-Asian discrimination.

On a positive note, Yi states that since COVID-19 and heightened awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement, she observes that people seem to care more and want to stand up for racial justice.

“People are starting to stand up for each other in a way that is different than before,” Yi said.

Like other researchers, Yi is very interested in examining the effects of COVID-19 on our physical health, but she also fully understands the magnitude of this pandemic on all facets of our health, including mental and emotional health. Whether discussing the risks of obesity or the effect of gentrification on a resident’s ability to access ethnic foods, Yi and her team are researchers in action, seeking to create positive change in New York City, one research project at a time.


Stella Yi is an assistant professor in the Section for Health Equity in the Department of Population Health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She is a cardiovascular epidemiologist. Her work focuses on improving lifestyle behaviors like diet and physical activity for reducing chronic disease risk through multi-sector collaborations and community-partnered research for the New York City population and for Asian American and immigrant communities, specifically. Prior to joining faculty at NYU in 2014, she worked for six years at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) leading research and evaluation efforts of city nutrition policies and community-clinic initiatives. Given her experiences, she possesses a unique viewpoint on health, policy, and research that encompasses a citywide perspective paired with an understanding of unique health needs of disparity subgroups. Yi received her Masters in Public Health in Chronic Disease Epidemiology/Social Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health and her doctorate in Epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition, so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them. To learn more, visit or on social media by searching for #CookingForLife.