Senior citizens chef keeps it fresh

Thanksgiving dinner coming out of Homer Senior Citizens kitchen lacks much of one item many people tend to consume on this turkey-eating holiday — sodium.

When David Pruett took over as chef at Homer Senior Citizens about five years ago, it didn’t take him long — about day two — to start changing what went into the mouths of Homer’s seasoned citizens. Like many food service establishments, the senior center’s kitchen used processed foods — boxes, cans and bags of items that can shorten the amount of cooking time but that also contain unsavory ingredients.

“Pretty much everything in restaurants these days is processed. Salad dressings come premade which means it’s all high-fructose corn syrup and saturated this and that,” Pruett said. “Potatoes come in bags which they rehydrate and heat, which has massive sodium. Soups come in cans or frozen to reheat, which is again tons of sodium. Cookies come premade and you put them on a pan and bake them and they have all (kinds) of crap in them — fructose and such. All the soups, sauces, they come in bags and cans. They might taste okay, but they’re all full of, at the minimum, massive preservatives.”

While most people should be careful not to eat too much sodium on a daily basis, for senior citizens a high intake can cause a litany of health problems, or at the least, keep them from feeling their best.

When Pruett arrived at the senior center he noticed “people being bloated and retaining water and being uncomfortable, which is pretty common in seniors because of the salt,” Pruett said. “We don’t have that problem anymore. It’s gone. They have other problems, because they’re elderly, but it’s not caused by their salt intake.”

The change was simple in idea, though Pruett is still in the process of fully implementing it. Pruett decided to eliminate processed foods from the kitchen and try to procure as much fresh, local food as possible.

The first things to go where the premade potatoes and rice.

“If you can’t make those you shouldn’t be pretending to be a cook,” Pruett said.

He followed the move to starches from scratch with salad dressings, which are also simple to make from scratch. Over time, he is working to make all the sauces, breads, cookies and other food items in house, which can be a challenge on a fixed budget and in an area with limited resources. Pruett works with local producers, including McNeil Canyon Meats, Oceanside Farm, Anchor Point Greenhouse, and a variety of the smaller farmers that sell at the Homer Farmers Market in the summer. The biggest obstacle is quantity, since Pruett can go through 25-30 pounds of vegetables in one meal, and he makes 14 meals each week.

“I think to be successful feeding locally, we’re going to need several producers of Anchor Point Greenhouse’s size and all the little guys,” Pruett said. “There’s no where near enough. Broccoli, you’re fighting over it coming out of the field. Kale, Swiss chard, zucchini, you can get as much of that as you want. After that it’s more hit and miss.”

Pruett buys as much as he can locally, supplements his lettuce and tomato needs with a garden at the senior center in the summer, and then defers to his commercial food purveyors to ship food up from the Lower 48. As he works on procuring more produce from local sources, Pruett also has a new project — eggs.

“To me eggs are completely and totally a joke these days … especially the commercial ones I get here,” Pruett said. “The yolk is barely yellow, a pale yellow, they used to be orange. There’s not any value in it anymore. So I’m on a mission, but it’s a tough one. They’re so expensive locally.”

Pruett has run into the same dilemma with local, organic eggs — not enough for his needs. He needs 30 dozen a week to keep up with the meals he makes, which is not a lot by food service standards, but a lot for a small, local producer, he said. Additionally, there is often a difference of $5 per dozen between the commercially bought eggs and the local eggs. Like the rest, it is a work in progress as he balances supply, demand and the kitchen’s operating budget, but he is taking his time to make it a sustainable change.

Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.

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