Story By Margaret D. Smith

Photo By Greg Schneider

Nutrition Student Serves Up Kindness and
Education to Senior Citizens at Food Bank

Once a month, retired schoolteacher Sarah Clarke comes to the food bank at Hopelink, a community action agency for low-income people. At 70 years old, this Redmond, Washington, resident never thought she'd be standing in line for food. But since her retirement, she's lived on a fixed income that keeps shrinking in value as food prices rise. After Sarah's husband died, she lost interest in cooking. Since she eats few meals, her health has suffered. Besides this, she's a bit lonely.

Though Sarah is a fictional character, plenty of low-income seniors just like her live on the mostly affluent Eastside, a few miles from Seattle. According to Mary Podrabsky, associate director for Seattle Senior Services, "Poverty is the number one indicator of nutritional risk among seniors."

Enter Larissa George, a 21-year-old Seattle Pacific University senior from Richland, Washington. George, a nutrition major, wanted to create a practical, hands-on nutrition education program for her senior honors project. Although Hopelink was already offering a series of nutrition education workshops, the center needed a similar program just for senior citizens.

George created a pilot program with support from Hopelink and her advisor, Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences Evette Hackman. Though George was willing to fund a smaller version of the program by herself, Hackman urged her to apply for SPU's 2000-2001 Living and Learning Grant to pay for expenses. The $3,000 grant, sponsored by the Office of Student Life and the Office of Academic Affairs, is given to foster projects that integrate the curriculum with out-of-class learning.

George's popular monthly program, "Eat Smart, Live Well for Seniors," ran from January to June. As part of the program, she served meals she created from common food bank ingredients. One session's meal included tropical chicken kebabs, two kinds of salad and chocolate oatmeal cookies made with pureed prunes. George chose the cuisine specifically for seniors: "Foods need to be softer, easy to chew. In feedback, they tell me they want nothing too exotic. They like what they're used to."

During the meals, George led interactive workshops. Topics ranged from choosing heart-healthy ingredients to fixing easy meals for one person. At one session, George spoke about managing weight through exercise. "Little things you do already — gardening, housekeeping — it all counts as exercise."

One senior piped up, "Not everybody needs to lose weight. I walk my dog five times a day, and I've lost 32 pounds." Without missing a beat, George answered, "Great point. Not everyone is trying to lose weight. If you're walking your dog five times a day, you're already staying in shape!"

Being able to gauge the seniors' needs is an important part of George's project. "Larissa's Christian spirit is strong," says Hackman. "She's able to be lively and yet quiet inside, so she can see what their needs are."

According to Dean of Student Life Kathleen Braden, those reviewing the Living and Learning Grant proposals chose George's project because "we looked for a specific community project that could be accomplished in a short time frame. Larissa showed a lot of initiative, interacting with her teacher and the community to make a positive difference."

That positive difference shows in George's growth as a leader. Halfway through the six-month program, Alice Kurle, head of Food Stamp Education at Hopelink, said, "Larissa is much more confident than when she started. It's great to see her grow like this. She's very poised." According to Kurle, Hopelink plans to use George's program at all six of its locations.

For future years, the Living and Learning Grant Committee at Seattle Pacific wants to find a donor who will fund the grant independently. Says Braden, "This would be a wonderful concrete action for an individual or business, encouraging student leadership in the community."

As for George, her goal is to join the Peace Corps, giving nutrition education workshops in other countries. "I think we are all hungry," she says, "hungry for God, for acceptance, for food. Sharing a meal can nourish in all of these areas."

Grant winner Larissa George (center) and her advisor Dr. Evette Hackman (right) worked on gearing George's nutrition classes toward topics the seniors wanted. Most requested was a class on cooking easy meals for one or two people, followed by planning meals on a budget.

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