Men making meals
Katy Woodall ’18 (second from left), a sociology major and religion minor from Auburn, California, demonstrates cooking techniques to Randy Klassen (far left) and Bill Lake ’47 (third from left) at the August Men Making Meals pilot program at the Walla Walla Seniors Center.

"That was easy," said Randy Klassen, a retired pastor, about why he attended a new local community partnership, Men Making Meals, in early November. "My wife, Joyce, insisted I come. She thought it would be a good idea if I learned a little about cooking; otherwise, she does it all," continued Klassen, also an artist who has exhibited work with his spouse. "I think it's fair that I should share in that load-she shares in mine."

Men Making Meals offers weekly cooking classes for widowers, caregivers, Meals on Wheels recipients and others who may never have learned their way around the kitchen. It's a national effort supported by AARP. Whitman College's Student Engagement Center, the Walla Walla Senior Citizens Center and the United Way collaborate on the Blues iteration and funded it through a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Part of CIC's Intergenerational Connections project, Men Making Meals provides these tasty deliberations through culinary companionship with student chefs such as Adam Rooney '21.

"I thought it'd be cool to have more contact with elderly folks," said Rooney, who counts two senior citizens as friends in his hometown of Klamath Falls, Oregon. "Also, I like to cook." The budding foodie crafts curries and pasta sauces with his mom and made a pizza oven for his high school senior project.

Men Making Meals addresses an important need identified by Whitman's community partners, said Noah Leavitt, director of the Student Engagement Center. "It builds on what we know is one of the strengths of our existing Adopt-A-Grandparent program," he explained, "which helps foster close intergenerational friendships."

And learning to cook can keep otherwise high-functioning seniors out of full-time care facilities, added Howard Ostby, former executive director and nutrition director at the Senior Center. He came up with the idea to bring Men Making Meals to Walla Walla.

"It is very cost-effective for society to keep individuals in their homes," Ostby said, yet "male seniors in particular may not have been brought up in a culture where they can take care of themselves." 

While older women often have more experience than men in the kitchen, cooking skills are key to all seniors' independence. Studies show that elderly men often suffer more from poor nutrition after their wives become sick or die. In addition to tackling this nutritional concern, the classes reduce the isolation that seniors may feel and increase the mindfulness of students, said Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning, who consulted on the proposal.

"When I heard about Men Making Meals, I was thrilled not only because it bridges Whitman and the Walla Walla community in a thoughtful way, but also because it centers on what research tells us works well for community development and cooperation: namely, building relationships across groups that don't usually interact," Janning said.  

Case in point, Klassen and his cooking partner, Grace Dublin '21.

"I do a fair amount of cooking at home and at school, and I wanted to have the opportunity to share what I do know and to learn more," said Dublin, from Newtonville, Massachusetts.

Measuring ingredients for the week's recipe-a Thai yellow curry-Klassen observed: "I've always enjoyed the teacher, the people and the students. It's been very helpful."

Sociology major Katy Woodall '18, who helped organize the program and led the Thai curry class, summarized why the five-week fare succeeds: "There is a lot to be gained in terms of mutual understanding and friendship between these two distinct groups," she said. And "food really connects people." -Staff report