Irene Dugan used to cook for her husband, four kids and a granddaughter she raised. But when she began living alone in a Seattle senior apartment community, cooking for one became a challenge.
She needed to watch her salt intake, due to high blood pressure. She had a hard time standing at a stove for long periods. She sometimes didn't feel like cooking for one.
"I'm always looking for new ideas," said Dugan, 84. "It's really hard to come up with ideas when you live by yourself."
So Dugan enrolled in a cooking class geared toward low-income people 50 and older. It's focused on making small, nutritious and affordable meals.
She learned how to make simple dinners high in fiber and low in salt and fat. She got recipes for chili, couscous and some tasty "mix-and-match" casseroles with different blends of veggies and spices.
Run by the Lifelong AIDS Alliance in Seattle, the class is one of 10 programs nationwide funded by the AARP Foundation to combat senior hunger.
Nearly 9 million Americans age 50 and older — one in 11 older adults — were at risk of facing daily hunger in 2009, a report by the foundation showed last year. That rate came after a sharp rise in senior hunger during the economic downturn.
Running out of food
Although the recession is over, eating well is a struggle for many older adults, due to high food prices, fixed incomes and physical limitations that can make shopping and cooking a challenge. Poor diet is often the result, with too little food or too much processed food — salty canned soups or fatty frozen dinners — that can worsen chronic conditions.
"It was not unusual to find seniors eating cereal for dinner," said Jennifer Hinson, the nutrition services manager at Lifelong, a nonprofit group that offers programs to people living with chronic conditions.
"We see seniors who will frequently run out of food by the end of the month," she said.
Part of the problem is reluctance among older, low-income adults to use food stamps, known in Washington as the Basic Food program. Nationally, only a third of people 60 and older who qualify for the assistance program are enrolled, said Maggie Biscarr, hunger-impact program manager at the AARP Foundation.
To improve food security among older people, the AARP Foundation awarded nearly $2 million in Hunger Innovation Grants this year to 10 programs nationwide that go beyond food banks. They include community gardens in California, senior buying clubs in Maine and Lifelong's classes in Seattle.
Using food bank staples
Hinson is a dietitian who developed and teaches the classes, called "Pots and Plans."
Every week, she brings a portable stove and groceries to senior housing complexes around the city, where she whips up meals that can be made simply and talks about nutrition, fiber, fat and salt.
Recipes use easy-to-find ingredients and common food bank staples such as oats and beans. Dishes range from familiar standards, like spaghetti sauce (with three ingredients), to quinoa and whole wheat pasta.
Hinson cooks the dishes, and students taste every meal. She gives out recipes and bags of groceries with key ingredients. She also listens to the students' feedback.
"I've gotten some push-back on using fresh herbs [because they're expensive]," Hinson said. "They'll say, 'We can't afford avocados. Why are you showing us avocados?' "
Another participant, Kathe Martin, 66, found the classes a great way to try new things to eat better, lose weight and help her partner eat more vegetables.
"It's easy to fall into bad habits as you age," said Martin, a retired registered nurse in Seattle. But she didn't want to eat boring, bland health food.
"We want to make it tasty," she said.
To host a Lifelong cooking class in a senior housing complex, call 206-328-8979. The free weekly classes can accommodate six to 30 students and run for six weeks. To volunteer to help with setup and food preparation for the classes, visit the volunteer section at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance website.
Vanessa Ho is a writer living in Seattle.