Cecelia Mason Published

McDowell Residents Learn Healthy Cooking


Much attention has been paid over the years to child hunger, but hunger and poor nutrition are also problems among the country’s senior population. The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger is hoping to change that and has created a pilot program in West Virginia’s poorest county that the organization hopes will be replicated across Appalachia and the country.

NFESH commissioned a study starting in 2008 that shows the incidence of hunger among the nation’s senior population. That first study showed that one in nine seniors, or about 11 percent, faces the threat of hunger.

Peggy Ingraham, NFESH Executive vice president, said the numbers have continued to grow.

“And not simply because the senior population has been growing in this country, although of course it has with the explosion of baby boomers,” Ingraham said. But the percentage of seniors who are facing the threat of hunger has also grown significantly to nearly one in six, and in 2011 that represented 15.2 percent.”

Ingraham said the biggest risk factor is low income and seniors who live with children are twice as likely to face the threat of hunger. So NFESH used a grant from the Walmart Foundation to work with George Mason University, Reconnecting McDowell and a host of other organizations to create a program called Feeducation that teaches senior citizens in McDowell County how to make nutritious meals that appeal to young and old in a household.

Ingraham said statistics show McDowell County used to have a population of up to 150,000 and was one of the wealthier counties in the state. Today the U.S. Census estimates 20,876 people live in the 533 square mile county, making access to food a significant problem.

“It also means that when people go to shop at the grocery store and can get there they go a limited number of times and what they purchase is what they have to eat for a long period,” Ingraham said. “So to have them thinking about what they’re going to buy, making grocery lists, to be able to stretch their budget and to take that home and to take that home and to feed their family for a period of time is really a revolutionary thing.”

Teaming Up to Make a Difference

NFESH teamed up with George Mason University’s Nutrition and Food Studies Department to design a program where students work with senior headed households in McDowell to learn how to make more nutritious meals. Assistant Professor Constance Gewa said students in a class that meets in the fall called Nutrition Through the Life Spans began by designing the project. Then the spring Nutrition Education class implemented it by going to McDowell County and conducting three sessions where seniors and children could learn how to make healthy meals and snacks.

Gewa said the Feeducation program provided a valuable experience to her students.

“When you sit in class everything looks so black and white but when you go out in the field then you realize it is not, there are some grey areas, and you have to make decisions,” Gewa said. “ And those decisions you cannot make them alone all the time.”

One of Gewa’s students, Brian Head, visited McDowell County more than once. Head grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. and has an undergraduate degree in culinary arts. Since 2004 he’s worked as a chef in the D.C. area most recently serving as a sous chef for the U.S. House of Representatives at the Capitol.

Head said students in his group ran one of the cooking and nutrition session where they offered recipes for healthier pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, banana caterpillars and chili. He said one goal was providing ideas for normal food that could be made easily, like the grilled cheese.

“We understand that’s something that needs to be because of speed and time,” Head said. “You can always put vegetables inside of that and get more.”


Credit Peggy Ingraham / National Foundation to End Senior Hunger
National Foundation to End Senior Hunger
McDowell County, West Virginia, residents participate in a Feeducation session where they learn about nutrition and healthy cooking.

“And a lot of them had told us on our first trip that they eat a lot of bacon, they cook with butter and some still with lard, so we wanted to give them another option to cook with like olive oil so they don’t have to use butter and lard all the time,” he added.

Participants left each session with the ingredients for one of the recipes they saw demonstrated, and they each got a copy of a cookbook with recipes from all the sessions plus a few more.

“And one of the things we heard when we went back the second time is they had the recipe book at home and they were using it,” Head said. “We had one lady at the senior center who said she’d tried every single recipe and she had given the recipe book to another family member and they had used it.”

Getting More Than You Give

While the folks in McDowell County who participated came away from the cooking sessions with new recipes and nutrition advice like- buy more frozen and canned vegetables when fresh is not available- Head and Gewa said the students who traveled to McDowell also came away with something after the warm reception they received.

“So definitely after the first time I was so excited to go back and to see some of the familiar faces and to talk to them about their lives and how things have been,” Head said. “It’s more like we gained some friendships out of it instead of just we came down as teaching, we actually went down and talked to friends and it was a great experience.”

“It is an amazing community, I wouldn’t say anything else,” Gewa said. “It’s a wonderful community. They’re really keen to learn something new and open to that opportunity. And honestly, I was impressed.”

Hoping to Expand the Program

NFESH Executive Vice President Peggy Ingraham said the organization hopes to find the resources to bring the Feeducation program to other counties throughout the state and the region.

“We talk about seniors as being the forgotten hungry because they don’t yell quite so loudly but we think rural people and Appalachian people are also forgotten in a similar way,” Ingraham said. “Folks in cities make a lot of noise and have other opportunities but we have now put together we think a model that can transform and improve lives in McDowell and throughout West Virginia and throughout the whole Appalachian region.”

The Feeducation program is hosting a community event Saturday May 17, 2014 called Healthy Food, Healthy Fun, Healthy Future to celebrate the program’s success. The event will take place from noon to 3 p.m. in the Walmart parking lot in Kimball and at the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank. It will include cooking demonstrations, a farmers market and an appearance by the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street.