Every other day or so, Miriam Cruz drops in on her neighbor, Juan Prieto.
Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico, and Prieto, who is from the Mexican state of Jalisco, are residents at Arbor Creek Senior Apartments, an affordable housing complex in south Sacramento. Prieto, 80, was widowed some years ago and lives alone.
So Cruz, 71, who once worked as a food service manager for a school, goes by Prieto’s place to check on his well-being and fix him a midday meal that can last until the next visit. She likes to make yellow rice with olives and pimentos for Prieto.
“I look out for him because I don’t want things to happen to him like some of our neighbors that we’ve lost. They were gone for several days before we actually found that they (had died),” said Cruz.
Elk Grove Food Bank Services is looking out for these seniors, too.
The organization provides food each month at this complex and others in Elk Grove and south Sacramento. It is seeking $7,500 from The Sacramento Bee’s Book of Dreams project to purchase an assortment of cooking supplies, including a portable cooktop and two collapsible wagons, to supplement its food deliveries with mobile cooking classes for seniors.
The food bank offered these kinds of classes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and would now like to resume them, said Leigh Cobb, program manager for the organization. It’s about helping seniors to eat better.
“We definitely want to help them with simple, easy ways to make good nutritious meals,” Cobb said.
Cooking is on the menu
The idea is that when the food bank rolls up to do a distribution at a place like Arbor Creek, seniors will have information on how to prepare unfamiliar items. And using every last item in their food cart could be more valuable now with Social Security and CalFresh benefits often limited.
“A lot of our seniors are food insecure,” said Vanessa Brown, program coordinator for the food bank. “A lot of them, unfortunately, don’t get enough money.”
An added benefit is exposing people to the great variety of California produce.
“If eggplant is in season, sometimes people don’t know how to cook eggplant,” Brown said. “So we want to be able to showcase how seniors can use those items.”
Food insecurity isn’t limited to seniors, of course.
The food bank recently held a drive-thru, pre-Thanksgiving food giveaway in the parking lot of an Elk Grove church. Even with rain and wind, a line of cars — with people of all ages — slowly made its way through the parking lot.
“Before the pandemic, we were serving about 5,000 (people) each month,” said Valerie Erwin, community outreach manager for the food bank. “During the pandemic … we went up to about 10,000 a month. Now, we’re serving close to 16,000 and 17,000 every month.”
Seniors make up about 25% of the group’s beneficiaries, said Marie Jachino, the food bank’s executive director.
The idea of creating cooking classes for seniors has buy-in from local officials, including Elk Grove Vice Mayor Kevin Spease, who was on hand for the church parking lot distribution.
“It helps people understand better ways that they can cook basic staples, which are less expensive,” Spease said. “At the same time, as they’re in these classes, they’re also having opportunities to interact with others, so it helps out socially as well.”
At Arbor Creek, there isn’t unanimous interest in the cooking classes.
Rajendra Singh, 73, said a Sacramento County workerprepares food for him as he recovers from a recent triple bypass surgery, that he knows how to cook and “used to cook all kinds of food before” his surgery.
Others were more interested, though, including Connie Casias, 63, a former Arco Arena food service worker who moved to Arbor Creek in March 2020. The food bank prides itself in part on providing food for people from different backgrounds and, for Casias, this could help make the classes worthwhile.
“I would love to learn about other ethnicities, the different food from maybe like Europe,” she said.
‘She’s a lot of help to me’
Cruz said she would love to help with a cooking classes. She acted as a Spanish interpreter for Prieto, who speaks limited English. Prieto also expressed interest in the cooking class.
“That way he can do something,” Cruz said, after hearing Prieto’s answer in Spanish.
Prieto clearly appreciated what Cruz is doing for him, saying in English as the interview was wrapping up, “She’s a lot of help to me.”
But for the times that people like Cruz aren’t available, these classes might just keep Prieto and others from going hungry.
Book of Dreams
The request: Elk Grove Food Bank Services asks for help to resume mobile cooking classes for seniors.
The cost: $7,500.