Beyond The Edible Schoolyard: Senior Citizens and the Quality Food Quagmire

10/25/2011 05:17 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2011

She made pots of Hungarian goulash and piles of latkes; she broiled a virtual river of fish and roasted a hatchery of chicken. For the eighteen years that she was in my life, my grandmother stood in our tiny galley kitchen in Queens and cooked for me, for my mother, and, until my parents got divorced, for my father. Her own appetite was not big, but whatever she fed us she also nibbled, and it was always balanced: there was fish, chicken, beef, and sometimes lamb. There was always salad, and spinach, and usually asparagus, frozen though it was. There was chicken consomme so crystal clear that you would have thought she might have staged somewhere in France. There was rice, or if it was the middle of winter and she had made goulash, noodles or spaetzle flecked with caraway seeds. On the evenings when I went into Manhattan with my parents, to a long-dead Mitteleuropaische bakery called Mrs. Herbst, she would request that we bring her back some cabbage strudel -- but not a slice. The American-born daughter of two Hungarians from Budapest who had moved to the United States in the 1890s, she justified wanting an entire strudel, which was in the neighborhood of three feet long.

As my grandmother got older and grew less and less able to cook well for herself, I brought her food: I made her filet of sole and chicken stew, and even when her energy was flagging due to the congestive heart failure that would eventually kill her at the age of 80 in 1981, she could still be found standing in her apartment kitchen across the street from ours, making herself a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, and Sanka. She didn't want anything fancy; she just wanted to eat what she termed The Basics. Her only gustatory vices? Taking the Q60 bus down Queens Boulevard and into Manhattan, where she would walk the one block to Bloomingdale's for a frozen yogurt at The Forty Carrots. And having the odd grilled cheese sandwich at McCrory's on 63rd Drive in Rego Park. Or eating a slice of pizza at the pizzeria across the street from where we lived. Her diet may not have been ideal, but it was reasonably healthy, never excessive, and always balanced. When she died, there was a bunch of bananas on the top of her refrigerator, and fresh Macintosh apples in a bowl on her tiny kitchenette table-for-two.

Fast forward thirty years: My spouse's cousin, a tall woman in her late 80s who bears just the faintest resemblance to Dick Butkus, has moved into a top-quality, graduated care, assisted living facility in Connecticut because her house has become too much for her to handle. She's a bit of a card shark and an active bingo player, and only just started to use a walker because her feet hurt: in the single year that she has been living there and owing to a steady food service diet of white bread, potatoes, cream sauces, buttered noodles, and rice casseroles, she has gained 80 pounds. 80 pounds.

One day, when my spouse and I visited the facility to make preparations for the possibility of my 93-year-old mother-in-law moving into an apartment there, we were taken on a tour, which included a walk-around in the bustling dining room: lunch was spaghetti and meatballs with a side of mashed potatoes on which square pats of salted butter pooled like rain in a pothole. The "green vegetable" served to each diner in small Buffalo-ware bowls was creamed corn. Residents gnawed obliviously on the two white dinner rolls sitting on each of their plates.

"What are the options for breakfast?" I asked.

"Fried eggs," my tour guide said, "and toast. Pancakes and syrup. Bacon or ham. Sugar Pops. Everyone has a choice."

"How about granola? Or Bran Flakes and fruit?" I asked.

"Only if they need it," she answered, giving me a wink.

It doesn't take much to figure out that feeding a flock of octogenarians a daily breakfast of bran flakes and fruit might create more work for their caretakers, for fairly obvious reasons. But beyond that, the cost of serving hundreds of older folks fresh fruit every day -- and not even the organic stuff that I struggle to bring into my kitchen on a regular basis? Astronomical. Rice and potatoes and industrial-sized cans of heat-and-serve creamed corn are far cheaper.

A few weeks later, I went to a local, highly-rated Connecticut hospital to visit my next door neighbor's mother, another hale lady in her late eighties who recently had begun to have heart problems. It was a beautiful day, and to cheer her up, we brought her a balloon that said CONGRATULATIONS! IT'S A BOY! When lunchtime rolled around, a tray was plunked down in front of her and the little round plastic lids removed with great fanfare -- the way they do in Russian Imperial Service -- to reveal plates of baked beans and hot dogs, and on the side, a bag of salted pretzels.

"She's a cardiac patient," we said to the attendant who brought the food.

"I'll check her orders," she said.

Moments later, the attendant returned to tell us that our friend-the-cardiac-patient -- the one who was retaining so much water that she looked like Jabba the Hut -- had in fact received the correct meal: it was labeled LOW SODIUM. If she had been forty years old with the same stats, the meal likely would have been identical. But our friend-the-cardiac-patient who came in to the hospital at a certain age with a certain condition requiring a specific nutritional response was fed exactly what a beer-swilling twenty year old might eat while watching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

We live in a society that emphatically and unabashedly values youth before age, and vigor before weakness. We food professionals speak constantly of the future of this country and of the health of our children, and the fact that, according to the CDC, 12.5 million American children and teenagers are obese, and that since 1980, the prevalence of obesity among kids has almost tripled.

Take too, the fact that by the time every baby boomer reaches the age of 65, the number of people eligible for Medicare will skyrocket from 46 million to 80 million. According to a study based on CDC reports, the number of seniors living with diabetes both diagnosed and undiagnosed will increase by 59 percent by the year 2025 from 10,821,600 to 17,191,000.

But as the number of baby boomers hitting 65 skyrockets along with the cost of living and price of healthcare, the quality of food fed to seniors by assisted living facilities and senior centers will continue to plummet unless we begin to place the same level of importance and social value in what and how we feed them as we do our children. While Meals-on-Wheels focuses on solving the hideous and inexcusable problem of senior hunger, its clear goal is to feed its recipients daily meals at a low price; starving people, regardless of their age, are far less likely to be concerned about nutrient density than they are filling their bellies cheaply, which is why it's not at all surprising that organizations like Wal-Mart and Dean Foods -- the latter of whom supplies milk products to McDonalds, among other fast food companies -- are among the corporate sponsors of Meals-On-Wheels. This is not meant to be a negative commentary: trying to fix the problem of senior hunger is no easy one, nor is it at all cheap. This makes it all the more surprising that the average Meals-On-Wheels weekly menu, while not the picture of nutritional perfection by any stretch, appears to actually be healthier than the white carbohydrate-laden one fed to my spouse's cousin in her assisted living facility, where she is paying the princely, out-of-pocket sum of thousands of dollars every month in rent and services, while growing heavier and sicker every day.

Seniors abound in great and increasing numbers, and as they are unable to afford high quality, nutrient-packed foods that will help keep them healthier longer, it is imperative that we focus as much attention on harnessing what Alice Waters has called "the transformative power of food" for the undeniable health benefit not only of our children, but of our older citizens everywhere as well. They deserve no less.

It may begin in the schoolyard, but it must not end there.